Duke-UNC Rivalry Gets a Freshman Facelift
by Mark Medina | LaxMagazine.com
Freshman R.G. Keenan (82-of-128) has taken the majority of faceoffs for eighth-ranked North Carolina, one of several freshmen making an immediate impact in Chapel Hill.
© Peyton Williams
Fifteen players who define instant impact. Read Mark Medina's blog.
By no means did North Carolina attackman Nick Galasso find the immediate opportunity to make an impact the sole motivation in joining the Tar Heels' star-studded, 12-member men's lacrosse recruiting class.
But it was surely a factor.
"When I heard all these kids were committing here, I wasn't very familiar with all of them," said Galasso, widely considered the nation's top recruit after earning three All-American honors and carrying West Islip (N.Y.) to three state championships. "But we want to be with each other every second of the way and hopefully win championships. That time will come. We'll do whatever we can to be as successful as we can."
So far, the eighth-ranked Tar Heels (5-1) have emerged as contenders in seeking their first ACC tournament title since 1996, their first final four since 1993 and perhaps even their first national title in 20 years.
They enter a Thursday matchup at 7 p.m. with seventh-ranked Duke (4-2) at Fetzer Field after reeling off three consecutive victories. It's in no small part due to their freshman class. Galasso leads North Carolina in points (22) and assists (11), scored four goals against Robert Morris in their season opener and is lauded by UNC coach Joe Breschi as "one of the most complete lacrosse players I've ever seen." Freshman faceoff specialist R.G. Keenan (82-of-128) has taken the majority of faceoffs. And the Tar Heels boasts seven freshman midfielders, including fifth-leading scorer Duncan Hutchins (eight points) and sixth-leading scorer Mark McNeill (six points).
"They wouldn't be playing if they weren't that good," said Breschi, who's also lauded the freshman class for their high "lacrosse IQ."
"If there were guys better than them," he said, "they would be stepping on the field. We recruited them to play them. It just so happens they're better. They've worked hard and they're talented, so they're getting on the field."
The same can be said for the Blue Devils, who feature a 10-member freshmen class, including four defensemen. They've recovered from a 1-2 start to also win three straight. This, despite losing 16 letterwinners from last season's NCAA championship team, including attackman Max Quinzani and midfielder Ned Crotty, who combined for nearly 500 career points and six All-American awards.
Even though Duke's offense primarily centers on senior attackman Zach Howell (17g, 3a), there are plenty of freshmen contributing in various spots. Freshman attackman Jordan Wolf, who set school records in points and assists at Lower Merion High School in Wynewood, Pa., has posted a third-best nine points, including a hat trick and game-winning goal in Duke's 9-8 overtime victory March 5 over Maryland. Freshman attackman Christian Walsh (seven) ranks sixth in points, while freshman Josh Dionne threw in a hat trick in the Blue Devils' 18-5 victory last week over Mercer.
Freshman attackman Christian Walsh ranks sixth on Duke with seven points this season.
© Jim O'Connor
Duke's three new close defenders, including freshmen Luke Duprey and Chris Hipps, have held
opponents to 7.83 goals per contest.
"It's hard for freshmen to make an impact," Danowksi said. "When guys do, you know they're special, because it's not easy."
And it certainly hasn't been easy.
Summoning his players together following a five-point loss to Ohio State in the second week of the season, Breschi saw no reason to overreact so early. But he saw it as a perfect teachable moment.
"You are no longer freshmen," Breschi recalled telling his team. "You have to dial in and make an impact on this team. We're going to play the best players. You guys have to listen, learn to execute and handle adversity."
Only a week later, Danowksi found himself in a similar situation. The Blue Devils' loss to Penn on Feb. 26 marked their second in a row and the first time since 1986 they only scored three goals in a game. Even with Duke coming off a championship season, Danowski has placed less focus on wins and losses and more on how the team develops.
"When you lose a game, how do you react?" Danowski said. "You lose another game. How do you react? You win another game. How do you react? I think the guys have done a really good job of learning the lessons that each season presents."
Since those two moments, both Duke and North Carolina responded to their respective adversities by emphasizing teaching. Each Tar Heel practice features position-specific exercises and film sessions, while the week's filled with plenty of bonding with the upperclassmen, including dinners and pick-up basketball games.
Meanwhile, Breschi's coaching staff has continued tinkering his lineup. The Tar Heels entered the season losing some of their top midfielders in to Milton Lyles, Sean Burke, Tyler Morton and Cam Wood for various injuries, prompting Breschi to open the season opener against Robert Morris playing 10 freshmen.
"Coaches prepare us all week," Keenan said. "They could not prepare us any better. If we go in and do what they say, normally things will come out in our favor. "
Meanwhile, Danowksi expressed plenty of platitudes that demonstrate his balancing act in providing positive reinforcement and accountability, repeating the team "has to grow up quick," "make each other look good" and "practice hard."
"Last year with so many players, the freshmen didn't necessarily take their time, but they had time to develop and had people to watch," Dionne said. "They didn't have all that high pressure on them right away. With the grow-up-quick thing, we're learning every day as we go."