Josh Dionne came out of New Hampshire looking for a team that played at the “highest level of college lacrosse” and where he could also be a part of one of the finest academic institutions in the nation.
So he headed south to Duke University.
While he knew he would be tested in the classroom, the learning process on the lacrosse field has been quite a daunting task as well.
As a rookie last spring, Dionne played in what would equate to, in college football terms, a special teams role.
He tallied 10 goals and three assists for 13 points, with his top scoring game coming against Mercer with three goals. He tied for the team lead in extra man goals with six and scored a goal in the Blue Devils’ 15-14 first round NCAA win against Delaware.
But he knew he could be better.
So Dionne came back to school in the fall 15 pounds lighter and with a new outlook on his college lacrosse career.
“From last year to this year has been quite a difference,” said Dionne, who hails from Merrimack, N.H. “As a freshman I still played like a high school player. This year I am beginning to play with more maturity and not only listening more but understanding what the coaches want me to do. For example, last year in workouts we would do drills and you would try to just survive the drill. Now you do the drills to become better as a player. You have a better understanding of what the drills are teaching you.”
Dionne came to Duke as a very successful high school athlete.
As a prepster he was a four-year letter winner for Henry Skip Flanagan at Avon Old Farms, where he was selected to the Under Armour All-America team his senior season. He also lettered four years in soccer and hockey, leading the soccer team to the New England championship in 2008.
But even with all that success he knew he had to come back for his sophomore year at Duke with a different attitude.
“Josh came back this fall in great shape and changed his body,” explained John Danowski, now in his sixth year as the Blue Devils’ head lacrosse coach. “He is still learning on the job; each game he has new experiences that he can learn from. Each week, each game is a building block for him at this point in his career.”
Beside his physical and mental changes, Dionne also made a uniform change.
After playing his freshman season wearing the number 0, Dionne donned the number 8 for his sophomore season. No. 8 was previously worn by three-time All-America Max Quinzani, who finished his career in 2010 as the second leading goal scorer in school history and holder of the single season scoring record with 68 goals.
“Maybe it’s a joke that 0 is a bad number for a scorer to have, but it certainly has worked out better wearing No. 8 this spring,” explained Dionne. “Max was a great scorer in lacrosse and I don’t really feel any pressure wearing his number as much as I want to live up to wearing No. 8.”
After 16 games Dionne leads Duke and the ACC in overall goals with 31 and has 35 points overall. He is surrounded by a bevy of scorers. In fact, three of the top four scorers in the Atlantic Coast Conference wear Duke blue. Senior midfielder Robert Rotanz is having a career year with 26 points (29g, 7a), while Blue Devil sophomore attack Jordan Wolf ranks third in the ACC in points with 55 (28g, 27a).
“Everyone is staring at Jordan when we have the ball,” explained Dionne, on how he is able to score. “He is so fast, he makes his moves, feeds me the ball and I can score. Everyone has trusted me this season.”
“The attackers are so close to the goal they are going to be the ones that score the most,” pointed out Danowski. “We like to play fast and score often. We aren’t great on defense so we have to be aggressive on the offensive end of the field.
“The drills that we have worked on in the offseason and during the season have made it so much easier for me this season,” explained Dionne. “Now I have stopped thinking about what to do because I have run the play or drilled the technique so many times it just comes naturally, which is a great feeling.”
Dionne has been a key part of a Duke team that is now riding a 10-game win streak and recently captures its seventh ACC title and a No. 4 national ranking.
This season Dionne has a team-high seven hat tricks and scored four goals each versus Penn, Dartmouth and No. 1 Virginia, and three goals each against Maryland twice, Harvard and North Carolina.
“Possessing the ball is very important to our offense and defense,” said Dionne. “Our defenders don’t have to play as much if we possess the ball for longer periods of time. If we keep the ball, play patiently on the offensive end, then we should score.”
Following back-to-back losses in the middle of the season to Maryland and Loyola, the Devils have put together 10 consecutive victories, including a big win just outside New York City, and two wins in the ACC Tournament.
Their 12-10 victory over No. 14 ranked Syracuse in the Konica Minolta Big City Classic showed how the Devils have put together both ends of the field for a victory. In front of a college lacrosse regular season attendance record of 25,934 at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the Devils shut down Syracuse’s offense in the fourth quarter. The final 12 minutes was all Duke as the Blue Devils held the Orangemen to six shots, forced four turnovers and allowed no goals.
“I’m really proud of our guys today,” said Danowski following the game. “I’m proud of the way they finished the game and played in the fourth quarter.”
“Playing in that setting is awesome,” said Dionne. “Last year I noticed the crowd, the venue, the loud music. This year I was much more into the game. The crowd seemed to be a blur and the rain really made it seem like we were just playing a game in the backyard, which relaxed me quite a bit.”
And while the win over Syracuse was important, Dionne is quick to point out that the Devils’ 13-10 victory over archrival North Carolina, a game where he scored three goals, was equally important.
“I’m not sure there is a bigger lacrosse rivalry than the Duke-North Carolina rivalry,” said Dionne. “We are both national programs and both want to win, combined with the fact we are so close to each other. It makes for a great game.”
Dionne is well aware of the status of being a Duke lacrosse player. The negative publicity from the past, combined with five straight final fours and the national title of 2010, often places he and his teammates squarely in the media cross-hairs.
“We understand that people keep their eye on us,” he said. “We take that as a positive way to show them what kind of Duke men we are and what type of great program we have here at Duke. I don’t think we feel the responsibility as much as we understand the great values that Coach Danowski teaches us as a program and how we can live up to being Duke lacrosse players.”