DURHAM, N.C. — It seems like the NCAA can’t hold a Final Four in men’s lacrosse lately without Duke.
The defending national champion and top-seeded Blue Devils (15-3) are in the national semifinals for the eighth straight year, and they will play fifth-seeded Denver on Saturday in Baltimore.
Attackman Kyle Keenan says the players “blindly follow (the coaches) because we know they know how to get it done.”
Coach John Danowski — the first coach to reach the Final Four in each of his first eight years at a school — took over the program from Mike Pressler in July 2006 when three players faced rape allegations that turned out to be false.
His first Duke team reached the NCAA title game in 2007, starting a run of success that continues.
“It’s one of those things that we take pride in from Day 1,” injured attackman Josh Dionne said. “We know that it’s not guaranteed, and I think a lot of people ... take it immaturely, that it’s a given that they’re going to go to the Final Four. But we understand that it’s a milestone that needs to be earned, and I think that’s Coach Danowski’s philosophy. We trust him and this is when we start playing our best lacrosse.”
Duke claimed its first national title in 2010, and the freshmen on that team won it again last year as seniors. They will have to beat Denver, then either sixth-seeded Notre Dame or seventh-seeded Maryland on Monday in the final, to repeat as champs.
“It’s not so much a pressure to get to the Final Four,” Dionne said. “But they set the bar so high that we just want to be able to reach that bar and hopefully raise it with our legacy.”
Danowski says he doesn’t view these eight seasons in their entirety because “the journey is always in the singular year” and says it helps that the spring semester has ended because the players can focus solely on the sport.
“Each team has its own identity and its own unique challenges, adversity over the course of the year,” Danowski said. “The fun of this is that I couldn’t tell you what day today is, the date — I know it’s May — but it’s just kind of fun, everybody having fun and living day to day. ... The bonding that occurs is incredible because the focus is only on lacrosse.”
The Blue Devils credit their success on the attention they pay to the fundamentals.
“Nothing we teach is too crazy,” midfielder Brendan Fowler said. “We just stick to the basics, we repeat them over and over and everyone has good fundamentals. ... I just think it’s a testament to how he coaches us and prepares us. We don’t reach our peak, usually, until May starts. The team we are Feb. 1, we’re not going to be the same team the next week. ... We’re always going to be a little bit better every week going forward.”
This team progressed that way: After starting 4-2, the Blue Devils reeled off eight straight wins before falling to new ACC rival Syracuse in the conference semifinals. Duke beat Air Force 20-9 in its NCAA tournament opener and followed that by beating perennial nemesis Johns Hopkins 19-11 in the quarterfinals.
The Blue Devils rank second in the nation with an average of 15.06 goals and Jordan Wolf is the second-leading scorer in Division I, averaging 3.28 goals.
The offense might take a step back without Dionne, the team’s second-leading scorer with 49 goals. He scored four first-half goals against Delaware before he was sidelined with a right leg injury.
Then again, with Duke’s next-man-up philosophy, maybe not.
“One person can become a great scorer in our system,” Danowski said, “but we still believe that the system is greater than the player.”