Fowler, Duke's Steadying Force, Dominates Faceoffs
Duke faceoff man Brendan Fowler went 20-for-26 in Monday's national title game and extended his own NCAA Division I single-season records for faceoffs taken and won in a season.
© Lee Weissman
PHILADELPHIA — Duke looked lost in the season's first month, and it was disoriented in the opening stages of Monday's NCAA tournament final.
After digging out of both situations, the Blue Devils will be eternally grateful they inadvertently found Brendan Fowler.
The junior faceoff specialist was Duke's ace in the hole from start to finish this season, including a 20-for-28 performance in a 16-10 defeat of top-seeded Syracuse at Lincoln Financial Field.
Fowler set the Division I record for faceoffs won in a season (339). He obliterated the record for faceoffs taken in a season (526). Not bad for a guy who came to Duke to play football and wasn't on coach John Danowski's radar until late in his senior year of high school.
"I didn't meet Brendan until August of his freshman year," Danowski said. "We had nothing to do with recruiting Brendan, getting him into the school. Everything was on his own. Those stories don't happen too often, but that's a true story. We take no credit for the recruitment of Brendan Fowler."
Fowler, though, could take a great deal of credit for the seventh-seeded Blue Devils' championship run after his season ended with a broken collarbone last year.
The Wantagh, N.Y., product didn't even pick up a lacrosse stick again until about Jan. 1, concentrating on his role as a reserve linebacker and special teams performer for Duke's first football team to reach a bowl game since 1994.
By the time the season started, it was clear a guy who was consistently solid as a part-time player the last two years could take another step.
He's quick. He's strong. He's versatile. A pair of quality starting wings (Luke Duprey and Will Haus) help, too.
But, perhaps most importantly, he rapidly adapts, avoiding bad days as a result.
"He gets used to who he's facing off against and he gets used to how the officials are calling it," said Duke assistant Ron Caputo, who works with the Blue Devils' faceoff guys. "He's a great kid and has great rapport with them. The officials are great; they'll listen to you and take some feedback and he gets used to them and gets used to their timing. He has fast hands, so the counter to that is what? You have faster hands?"
Few others do. And so as the Blue Devils stumbled into and out of their early-season fog, Fowler always gave them a chance. Even on days when he struggled for stretches, such as Duke's 18-17 ACC semifinal loss to North Carolina, he recovered to provide a period of outright dominance.
Fowler proved during the season to be the variable that made Duke's potent offense just about unbearable. The Blue Devils could score from everywhere, and they seemed to monopolize possession.
"He's kind of like the trigger to our offense," midfielder Jake Tripucka said. "He gets us the ball back 65 percent of the time. If we're down in a game, he gets us the ball back every time."
The Blue Devils needed him to Monday, particularly after Syracuse bolted to a 5-0 lead. Fowler committed two violations in the first half. He as flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on another faceoff.
Duke's Brendan Fowler became the only player to earn most outstanding player honors in an NCAA tournament without scoring a goal or making a save in the championship game.
© Kevin P. Tucker
Just as they have all season, the Orange looked like they might survive despite their faceoff deficiencies.
"Early on I violated a few times and kind of let it get to my head a little bit," Fowler said. "Once I cooled down and stuck to what I do every day, I got into a groove there and just felt pretty good going out there every time."
That was comforting enough for the Blue Devils, who have grown accustomed to his periods of brilliance. Fowler would win 13 consecutive faceoffs at one point
Monday, denying Syracuse much of any chance to halt Duke's eventual surge in the middle of the game.
Danowski acknowledged he was internally "freaking out" over the early hole. Players, meanwhile, realized how quickly a comeback could be mounted with Fowler controlling draws.
"Even if we didn't have Fowler, it's just a matter of your team against theirs and just digging out of a hole," Tripucka said. "It's play by play. Having him is definitely a bonus. You know if you're down six goals, he's going to get you the ball back five times in a row, six times in a row. It's just a matter of staying patient and staying on it because he's going to do his job."
He couldn't have done much better in the middle of the game, collecting 14 of 15 faceoffs over the second and third quarters. Syracuse's 6-1 lead narrowed to 6-5 at the half. Duke finally took the lead late in the third quarter, then zipped to a 13-7 lead with 12:29 to play.
The Orange couldn't muster a reply largely because Fowler wouldn't allow it. Duke scored 16 goals in the final three quarters; Syracuse managed only 14 shots on cage in that stretch.
"I've taken 500 faceoffs this year," Fowler said. "I've done this so many times I just kind of relax and get in a groove. It's kind of sticking to what you do and when things go wrong, just staying true to yourself and what you do."
Now, Fowler occupies a previously empty place in the sport's lore as the only player to earn most outstanding player honors in an NCAA tournament without scoring a goal or making a save in the championship game.
"I told John after the game to buy his faceoff guy a big steak, because he deserves one," Syracuse coach John Desko said.
It was Desko and the Orange who finished the game flustered, unable to find an answer for the ferocious Fowler. Danowski wondered all season what would happen to the Blue Devils if Fowler wasn't sharp, wasn't able to play at his usual level.
Duke couldn't afford to find out Monday, not after its slow start. And just like earlier this season, Fowler came through to provide time for the Blue Devils to figure things out.
"[You think] 'Maybe this is the day we're just going to get whipped.' And why wouldn't you?" Danowski said. "But Brendan, once again, was that steadying, calming influence that allowed us to get to one and then we get to two."
And before long, Duke had 16 — as well as its second national title.