The Memorial Day sun glared down on 37,000 lacrosse enthusiasts gathered in Baltimore as Duke sophomore C.J. Costabile crouched at midfield awaiting the most significant faceoff in school history.
His Blue Devils had just battled Notre Dame to a 5-5 stalemate through 60 minutes of regulation time in the 2010 NCAA championship game — a tense contest marked by lengthy grind-it-out possessions and fewer goals than any previous national final.
This faceoff would begin sudden-death overtime. Costabile and Notre Dame’s Trever Sipperly girded for the tussle, as one of their earlier battles had consumed over 30 seconds. But not this one. Costabile instantly controlled the draw, sprinted toward the cage and fired the decisive missile past Notre Dame’s MVP goalie. Overtime lasted all of five seconds as Duke claimed its first NCAA men’s lacrosse crown.
That moment marked the midpoint — but not the only high point — of Costabile’s career. As a senior last year, for example, he was selected first team All-America, won ACC honors as the co-defensive player of the year and lacrosse scholar-athlete of the year, and took home the national Lowe’s Senior CLASS award for his sport.
But even with all those impressive bullet points on his CV, Costabile will always be remembered first for his stunning faceoff victory in the national championship game.
As Costabile was finishing off Notre Dame, Brendan Fowler was finishing up his senior year at Chaminade High School on Long Island. He was winning over 75 percent of his battles at the midfield X and earning recognition as New York’s faceoff man of the year. He was headed to Duke as a walkon linebacker in football, his first love and the sport his father played at Villanova, but he was also eyeing the opportunity to play lacrosse for the Blue Devils.
Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski did not recruit Fowler and did not see much of him until the spring of 2011 when the freshman reported for preseason practice. But from day one, Danowski liked what he saw. For the next two seasons he used Fowler as a faceoff counter-punch to his NCAA hero Costabile. While Costabile tried to control the draw with his long stick and then often stayed on the field to play defense, Fowler would provide a different look as a short-stick faceoff specialist. The combination proved effective as Fowler took over 300 faceoffs during the two years combined and won almost 58 percent of them for a pair of Duke teams that advanced to the final four.
With Costabile graduated, Danowski turned the X over to Fowler fulltime this year, and he has been even more effective than he was as Costabile’s alternate. Through the first 16 games he had taken almost 90 percent of Duke’s draws — nearly 400 total — and had won 65 percent of them.
He won six faceoffs in a hectic fourth quarter against defending NCAA champ Loyola, helping the Blue Devils turn a 5-4 deficit into a 9-8 upset victory. He was a perfect 5-for-5 in the fourth quarter at North Carolina (and 17-for-23 overall) as Duke claimed a tight ACC win. And in a surprisingly close battle with High Point, his 9-for-10 performance at the X in the third quarter made a huge difference, enabling Duke to parlay a 6-4 halftime lead into a 17-6 runaway.
“You can control the game,” says Fowler, when asked why he enjoys his specialist role. “You can keep getting the ball back for your team, which is definitely a cool thing. Some other parts might be struggling, but if you can win a bunch of faceoffs you can keep your team in the game.
“And when the fourth quarter comes around and it’s a close game, no matter what happened earlier, if you can win them then you give your team a shot to win the game.”
Danowski points out that games can still be won even without controlling a majority of the faceoffs, but he’s always cognizant of how a team’s performance at the X impacts momentum. “It adds momentum if you score a goal and you get the ball right back. Or it can stop momentum for your opponent if you give up a goal but then get possession of the ball. So either way, it adds a dimension of confidence to your team. It allows your offensive players to relax thinking that you’re going to get the ball back again, and defensively you are fresher and able to go after people and defend.”
Fowler has been facing off since he began playing lacrosse in elementary school. His coach asked for volunteers, Fowler raised his hand and soon found he was pretty good at it. He enhanced his skills at summer camps and evolved into a prospect who was recruited by several schools. After arriving at Duke, his two years of overlap with Costabile added to his education.
“He taught me a ton,” Fowler says. “I thought he was the best player in the country. He faced off with a long pole and he really taught me how to protect my stick. He would take the ball away from people all the time, so that was the best thing I learned from him. And he was so good at picking up ground balls. He worked with me on that. He was a huge part of my development here.”
Danowski views Fowler’s skill set and attitude as equal components in his success.
“He’s got quick hands — he used to be a high school wrestler,” says the coach. “He anticipates the whistle. But really he’s an athlete and a competitor. He’ll get beat and then he’ll figure out what his opponent is doing. He loves to compete. He always has a smile on his face every day at practice. He loves playing and his personality is such that he doesn’t get too high or too low. If he loses a draw he doesn’t get upset; if he wins one, he just comes back and tries to win another one.”
Even though a true faceoff specialist is not on the field for extended minutes at any given time, Fowler says the job can be a taxing one.
“You really exert a lot of energy, so if you are in a high-scoring game it’s pretty tough to face off and play in the field. Since C.J. also played in the field, it was almost impossible for him to take every one because you get so tired. I get to play a little offense in transition and a little defense here and there, but if you want to do well facing off it has to be your focus. To be a really successful faceoff guy in college you kind of have to specialize in it.”
Fowler enjoyed one of his best faceoff days last spring in Duke’s NCAA opener against Syracuse, when he and fellow football-lacrosse walkon Greg DeLuca handled all the draws while Costabile nursed a sore hand. Fowler controlled 12-of-17 before going down with a broken collarbone in the 12-9 Duke win.
Surgery to repair the injury delayed Fowler’s return to football, as he was not cleared to play until midseason. He saw some special teams duty and remained with the football team through the Belk Bowl (played on his 22nd birthday) before making his transition back to lacrosse.
The season got off to a slow start on the scoreboard as the Blue Devils stood 2-4 after the first month. But the victory over Loyola sparked an eight-game winning streak that thrust Duke back into the championship conversation. Danowski has guided the Devils to the final four in each of his previous six seasons at Duke.
“I think we have a lot of guys committed to what we’re doing,” Fowler explains. “Our senior class is awesome. They really led us in the (eight) in a row we won. They’ve been great. We started a little slow, but it was something where we were practicing well and just not producing on Saturday. We had great weeks of practice before Notre Dame, Penn, Maryland, and then just didn’t play well. As much as I was discouraged about the record, you could see that it was going to click. We had it coming. Then finally it started to click from Loyola since then.
“Coach Danowski coaches people to get individually better throughout the year, so we don’t stay the same. As the year goes along we put in more things, we keep working, everyone keeps getting better. We really stress people getting better as individuals. You always see trends in seniors and the other guys as they go out, they are always playing their best toward the end of the season. So the way we get coached is a big part of it.”
So is success at the X, where the wings — long poles Luke Duprey and Brian Dailey and short sticks Will Haus, Dave Lawson and Josh Offit — have enhanced Fowler’s effectiveness. “As the season wears on,” says Danowski, “we’re becoming a more formidable faceoff unit, not just Brendan as a terrific draw man.”
The fourth quarter of Duke’s home finale against Virginia offered ample proof. The Blue Devils trailed 14-12 entering the period but went on a 7-2 run to win the game 19-16. Fowler and his unit were a perfect 9-for-9 on faceoffs to fuel the surge, which left Duke with a share of the ACC’s regular season championship and helped him earn his first All-ACC selection.