DURHAM, N.C. - When the Blue Devils take the field Friday night for the Mile High Classic in Denver, Colo., they will be playing in front of thousands of fans in one of the largest sporting venues in the nation. The fanfare and excitement of playing in a National Football League stadium is nothing new for the Duke men's lacrosse program, however, which has traveled to six such venues since 2005 - including two this season.
At the beginning of April, Duke squared off with Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. - the home of the Super Bowl XLVI Champion New York Giants. It marked the second consecutive year the two teams met at the Meadowlands for the Konica Minolta Big City Classic, although this time it was the Blue Devils who came away victorious in a 12-10 win.
For several members of the Duke squad who are fans of the Giants, the experience of playing on the same turf as some of the biggest names in the NFL was priceless.
"It's definitely really cool to get to play in the same stadiums that you watch guys in the fall on Sundays," says West Islip, N.Y., native Justin Turri. "Doing it last year, the first time, was really cool - the first year in the stadium. We actually played on it before the Giants even got to play on that field ... I've watched Eli [Manning] throw passes on it, I went to a game this year and to be like, 'Yeah, I played on that field twice,' it's pretty cool."
Duke's games at the Meadowlands have also held a special significance for head coach John Danowski, whose father, Ed, quarterbacked the Giants for seven seasons between 1934 and 1941. Although he and his staff treat preparation and build-up to such games the same as if the team were at home in Koskinen Stadium, Danowski acknowledges the excitement playing at those venues holds for his players. He also sees the program's participation in events at some of the NFL's most well-known stadiums as a chance to grow the Duke lacrosse name nationwide.
"I think it's a great opportunity for people to meet our guys, to see them in airports and to see them on a plane," Danowski says. "We'll travel with ties and jackets. Our guys make a great impression and I think people are impressed with that. It gives us greater access to more people who wouldn't normally see the Duke brand."
The Blue Devils have fared well in NFL stadiums over the past seven years, where they have collected some of the program's most defining victories in postseason play. Last year's NCAA Final Four saw the team edge Notre Dame by a 7-5 margin in the semifinals in the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Duke's run to the 2010 NCAA title also featured a pair of thrilling contests in the Baltimore Raven's M&T Bank Stadium, as the squad defeated Virginia, 14-13, in front of nearly 45,000 fans and garnered the program's first national championship with a 6-5 overtime victory against Notre Dame.
"I still remember in 2010 when we won that Virginia game, that night game, it felt like we were playing Monday Night Football with 45 or 50,000 people there roaring every time someone scored a goal," Turri says. "It was just an unbelievable atmosphere, a lot of fun."
While he is grateful for the opportunities to showcase his program on larger stages and in other areas of the country, Danowski also believes events like the Mile High Classic, Konica Minolta Big City Classic and the Final Four are beneficial in marketing the game of lacrosse.
"You know these games are going to be on television," he says. "For the mass marketing, for the television, for students and for people to see the games in person and in an area where you normally wouldn't see Duke lacrosse - the whole metropolitan area, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Long Island, Denver, which is really growing lacrosse-wise - we reach a whole different population."
With the squad set to face Denver at Mile High Stadium under the lights Friday evening, the Blue Devils will be able to add another NFL stadium to their list. Regardless of the number of fans that fill the stands or television crews that line up for post-game interviews, Danowski's team is appreciative of another opportunity to simply play lacrosse.
"We take it in stride," Turri says. "We're very thankful that we get to play these games - to be on the national stage and to have a lot of people watching us. We're just thankful for the opportunity to try to grow the Duke Lacrosse brand, reach as many people as we can. It's great for the game of lacrosse."
Duke Men's Lacrosse Top Five NFL Stadium Games
Duke 7, Notre Dame 5
May 22, 2011
Posting a victory in its fourth different NFL stadium, the Blue Devils defeated Notre Dame, 7-5, in the NCAA quarterfinals to advance to Memorial Day Weekend - their fifth straight appearance on championship weekend. Avenging an early-season loss to the Fighting Irish, Duke received two goals from Justin Turri along with a 14-save performance out of Dan Wigrizer. Duke's second-half defense was outstanding as the Blue Devils forced Notre Dame into eight turnovers and held the Irish to just 12 shots including five on goal. Blue Devil head coach John Danowski said after the contest, "I thought today - I agree with [our players] - this was our best performance defensively and that's part of just gaining experience together and playing together." The following Saturday in Baltimore, Duke would fall to Maryland and finish the season 14-6.
Duke 14, Virginia 13
May 28, 2010
M&T Bank Stadium
Max Quinzani's goal with 12 seconds left propelled the Blue Devils past Virginia, 14-13, in the NCAA semifinals. Duke knocked off the top-ranked Cavaliers for the second time during the 2010 season, using four goals from Quinzani and three from Justin Turri in front of 44,389 fans. With the score tied, Ned Crotty held possession for Duke behind the cage for most of the final minute before darting around the left side and finding Quinzani, who sent a shot into the top left-hand corner past Virginia goaltender Adam Ghitelman. Said Crotty, "I saw Max's cut from the second he started it, and I threw kind of a spot feed, and he was right there on time. You saw the rest." Two days later, Duke would capture its first NCAA crown in men's lacrosse.
Johns Hopkins 9, Duke 8
May 30, 2005
Lincoln Financial Field
Despite the loss to top-seeded Johns Hopkins, Duke's defeat at the hand of the Blue Jays in the 2005 national championship game solidified the Blue Devils' journey to the top echelon of the national lacrosse scene. After stumbling to a 5-8 overall record in 2004, the Blue Devils rebounded to win an NCAA single-season record 17 games against just three defeats and make its first appearance in the title game. Duke received two goals each from Matt Danowski, Dan Flannery and Matt Zash, but Jake Byrne's goal with 13:35 left in the fourth quarter was the difference for the Blue Jays, who finished the year with a perfect 16-0 ledger. Following the game, Duke head coach Mike Pressler said, "It's tough to put this in perspective. We were one play away from a national championship. What a year our team had though. We were 5-8 a year ago and picked fourth in the conference in the preseason. To go all the way, 17-3 and one play away from the national championship, what a year for my guys. I'm certainly really proud of them."
Duke 12, Cornell 11
May 27, 2007
M&T Bank Stadium
In one of the most dramatic NCAA Tournament games in history, the Blue Devils survived a late rally by Cornell for a 12-11 national semifinal victory when Zack Greer scored with just three seconds left in the game. The Big Red erased a seven-goal deficit and tied the game at 11-11 with just 17 seconds remaining on Brian Clayton's unassisted goal. On the ensuing faceoff, rookie Terrence Molinari won the draw for Duke, passed to Peter Lamade, who found Greer open for the game-winner. Greer finished with four goals and one assist on the day while goalkeeper Dan Loftus was credited for 16 saves. Of note, the announced attendance of 52,004 established an NCAA men's lacrosse semifinal day record. Two days later, Duke would fall in the national title game to Johns Hopkins, 12-11, and end the year with a 17-3 ledger.
Duke 6, Notre Dame 5 (OT)
May 30, 2010
M&T Bank Stadium
An obvious choice for the top spot, Duke's win over Notre Dame provided the Blue Devils with the 2010 NCAA Championship in front of 37,126 spectators. CJ Costabile provided the heroics in overtime by securing the draw and racing for the game-winning goal just five seconds into the extra session. "The best feeling about it is we set this goal from the beginning of the year," said Costabile following the game. In the Duke net, Dan Wigrizer made five saves including one with Notre Dame ahead, 5-4, at the 8:44 mark of the fourth quarter, and became just the sixth true freshman goalie to win the national title. The victory, which marked the lowest scoring contest in NCAA championship game history and featured four lead changes and five deadlocks, capped a 16-4 season for Duke.