May 29, 2014

Lambrecht: Is Duke the New Standard in Lacrosse?

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Lambrecht Archive

Has Duke become the measuring stick upon which other programs should consider themselves? After three titles in five years and two straight, it is a valid question. (Bill Danielewski)

Maybe next year will be the year.

Maybe 2015 will mark the season when the Duke Blue Devils actually slip a notch in the national scheme of things, after struggling to replace such a good core of seniors in the ever-competitive, Division I pool. Maybe Duke, like every other big lacrosse name has in this age of advancing parity, finally will experience something resembling a rebuilding year.

I'll believe it when I see it.

As was demonstrated once again in 2014, with another perfect run through the postseason as the exclamation point, this is Duke's world, and the rest of college lacrosse merely exists in it.

Watch. Next year, the Blue Devils will stumble early, lose a couple of ugly games, split their first six contests. The inexperience, resulting from the loss of attackmen Jordan Wolf and Josh Dionne, midfielder Christian Walsh, faceoff specialist Brendan Fowler, LSM Luke Duprey and the entire close defense, will be glaring.

But few will believe the losing will last. Most will be waiting for Duke, led by an imposing 1-2 midfield punch of Myles Jones and Deemer Class and some former backups about to become impact players, to define roles, sharpen their identity and get it together.

Most will assume that coach John Danowski and his staff will harness the skills and athleticism that usually are overflowing in Durham. Everyone will be waiting for the Blue Devils to gather steam and confidence and start running laps around their competition as the weather warms.

This is what Duke does. After nearly a decade of sustained excellence no one else has approached, why shouldn't we expect the Blue Devils to do it again? And again? After winning its third national championship in five seasons, after its eighth consecutive final four and ninth Memorial Day weekend appearance in 10 years, and after its fifth NCAA title game in that time frame, Duke is entrenched as the king of the hill.

It's a frustrating reality for all of the teams chasing the Blue Devils, who keep reloading with recruiting classes that produce more big hits than misses and keep churning out offenses that light up the scoreboard with that free-flowing, up-and-down style that makes Duke fun and compelling to watch.

What Duke has accomplished in the 21st century harkens back to the simpler days when Syracuse, Virginia, Johns Hopkins and Princeton basically owned slots at the NCAA tournament's championship weekend and traded places as the last team standing.

But that was a far different time, before the sport had exploded nationally at the recreational and high school levels, sending an annual flood of quality talent into the comparatively small and static Division I landscape.

Look where we are now. Hopkins, which won crowns in 2005 and 2007, has missed the final four for six straight years. Princeton, which won six titles between 1994 and 2002, is in a 10-year final four drought. Syracuse and Virginia have combined to win four titles dating to 2006, but have endured some serious stumbles along the way.

Schools such as Notre Dame, Denver, Cornell and Loyola are catching up. The Irish have lost two title games (2014 and 2010) to Duke by a combined three goals. Denver has been to the final four in three of the past four seasons, but has yet to reach Memorial Day. Cornell came painfully close to winning it all in 2009 and has become a legitimate final four threat in most recent years.

Loyola broke through with its first national championship in 2012, but has gone out in the NCAA tournament's first round in the past two seasons while finishing with a combined record of 26-7. That includes last year's overtime loss to Duke, the eventual champ.

The little guys are making progress. Bryant and Drexel won their first NCAA tournament games ever this year, before getting bounced hard in the quarterfinals.

Albany, the team so many thought -- and hoped -- would ride the spectacular Thompsons to a Cinderella dream in Baltimore this year, could not hold a five-goal lead for eight minutes against Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. The championship window might have closed on the Great Danes.

That window remains wide open in Durham, where the Blue Devils just keep on keeping on. And it's no longer valid to point to a controversial decision by the NCAA as a reason for Duke's amazing success. In the wake of the program's fraudulent rape scandal that killed the 2006 season in mid-March and cost former coach Mike Pressler (now at Bryant) his job, Duke's entire roster was given the option of an extra year of eligibility.

The last of the five-year players, led by Ned Crotty, played major roles in Duke's first national title in 2010. But the Blue Devils have maintained remarkable momentum since.

The immature final four teams of 2011 and 2012 became the best in the land the next two years. Now we'll get to see if Duke can restock quickly once more and look like the team to beat entering May in 2015.

Eight years into the job at Duke, Danowski is averaging an incredible 16 victories per season. The data says that, even if Duke isn't the last team standing in Philadelphia next year, the Blue Devils will be in the thick of things as a significant threat. At this point, it seems foolish to doubt it.


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