By Meredith Rieder, GoDuke the Magazine
Cameron Indoor Stadium is a mecca in the basketball world. People travel thousands of miles to visit, not even watch a game, just to see inside the home arena of the Duke Blue Devils.
CJ Carpenter, however, remembers it as his playground. For the current Duke lacrosse attackman, Cameron was the perfect place to go after school, shoot baskets and run around with other kids his age while his mother, Duke volleyball head coach Jolene Nagel, turned her attention to her 15 players for a few hours.
“I’d sometimes play sick at school and have my mom come pick me up,” CJ recalled. “I’d always go right into Cameron and start shooting hoops. I always remember running around with my little brother in Cameron, playing basketball with all the other little kids, too. Growing up here was awesome. It was a big playground for us.”
Fast-forward 17 years and Carpenter is still meeting his friends at Duke after school to shoot and run around, but this time he is doing so 400 yards away on lacrosse goals at Koskinen Stadium instead of basketball hoops in Cameron. Much like on any playground, CJ has experienced his bumps and bruises both physically and emotionally.
However, he has never let those setbacks impede him from finding success for the Blue Devils on the lacrosse field. And while it might be a little later than he would have liked, CJ started playing the best lacrosse of his life this spring as Duke concluded its regular season and headed into NCAA Tournament play in search of a fourth national title.
“He had other opportunities, but (Duke) was going to be the one that challenged him the most academically and also athletically,” said Nagel. “He could have gone the easy route and played right away, but I was proud of him that he chose the one that was going to challenge him the most. That’s pretty cool.”
The oldest son of Nagel, CJ was just over two years old when she was hired as the Blue Devils’ fifth volleyball coach in program history. The family made the move from Ithaca, N.Y., where Nagel was the Cornell volleyball head coach and father Sam Carpenter was a men’s lacrosse assistant coach, to Durham where basketball reigned king.
While shooting hoops in Cameron might have been his go-to after school activity as a young boy hanging out at mom’s office, lacrosse was CJ’s destiny. His father was a star player at Middlebury College and played professionally for the Denver Rifles of the American Lacrosse League in 1988. He also was the men’s lacrosse head coach at Denver from 1986-1988, and served as an assistant coach for the U.S. Lacrosse U-19 team in 2002-03.
“(Lacrosse) was definitely a sport I always had a passion for,” CJ said. “There was a time I thought I was going to be one of those kids who was going to be drafted into the NBA, but I always knew lacrosse was going to be the sport I loved the most.”
He first remembers picking up a stick and putting on all his gear when he was three years old and running around at a camp in Durham his dad was coaching. He quickly developed a passion for the game and honed his craft over the years under the watch of his father in the early years and then for various coaches at Riverside High School and for his Triangle Select club.
CJ got his first taste of Duke lacrosse on the national stage during the Blue Devils’ run to the 2005 NCAA championship game. The Carpenter family made the trip to championship weekend, lacrosse’s final four, in Philadelphia. CJ along with 45,274 fans witnessed the second-seeded Blue Devils run past then-ACC rival Maryland, 18-9, to earn the program’s first appearance in the NCAA title game. Just shy of turning eight years old, CJ’s mind was made up that moment. He was going to be a Blue Devil one day.
“The 2005 (championship weekend) was the first time I saw Duke on the big stage,” CJ said. “That was the first time I thought that I wanted to do this and wear that Duke jersey. I wanted to be playing in the final four.”
“That final four might have been when he first saw Duke on the big stage, but for years both (former coach Mike) Pressler and (current coach John) Danowski would let (CJ and his brother Tyler) be at practice, go into the locker room and go to camps,” Nagel said. “The coaches have helped him gain a love of Duke lacrosse.”
His dream started to become reality in September of 2015 at his first official Duke lacrosse practice. It wasn’t easy then and absolutely never got any easier, but being the son of two coaches, CJ is wired a bit differently. The lessons he unknowingly soaked up as he watched his mom patrol the volleyball sidelines of Cameron Indoor Stadium and those his dad instilled in him as his youth coach growing up would come to serve him well over the course of his career as a Blue Devil.
“I have always thought it to be very valuable to be a coach’s kid,” CJ said. “My dad coached my travel team in middle school and even at that age, me and my dad would butt heads a little bit. My dad was kind of a yeller and my dad coached us like he was coaching his older teams and it wasn’t until I got older that I appreciated and understood it (from my dad’s perspective).”
“(And I saw it also) from my mom’s perspective that it’s hard to win. In any sport — it’s hard to win on the big level, on the big stage. Winning doesn’t happen on its own.”
CJ has taken these lessons and applied them to his Blue Devil career over the past four years. Riverside’s all-time leading scorer with 346 points, CJ jumped right into the fray as a rookie in 2016, seeing action in 10 of Duke’s 19 games. He was one of four freshmen on the team to play in double-digit games that season.
He entered his second season in 2017 looking to build upon the solid base he had established the year before. He saw the field in two of the first five games of the year, recording a single assist. With playing time hard to come by over the next month, CJ refused to let the situation frustrate him. His effort at practice never wavered and he continued to work tirelessly.
After playing in just two games from February 25 through March 13, CJ played in a 12-8 win over rival North Carolina and then followed that with a two-goal performance in a victory over Virginia. Starting to find his rhythm again and getting looks off the bench, CJ suddenly was faced with arguably his toughest challenge yet when he tore his ACL at practice the next week.
He missed the remainder of the 2017 season, underwent reconstructive surgery and spent the 2018 campaign rehabilitating his knee before being cleared for full contact late in the season as Duke made its run back to championship weekend for the first time since 2014, falling to Yale in the title game.
“As a coach your heart breaks for an athlete with an injury like that, but as a mom I remember I told my team the day after it happened and I started to cry as I told them,” Nagel said of CJ’s knee injury. “I’m just really proud of him because he’s worked so hard. He would be out shooting on the turf on (Cohan Fields) at 10 o’clock at night. And he does that a lot. He’s worked to become a better lacrosse player and athlete and he does it with a smile and an easygoingness I’m in awe of.”
The roller coaster continued in 2019. Fully healthy and now a seasoned senior, CJ knew this was his chance to leave a mark following the graduation of All-American attackman Justin Guterding. He started the first two games of the year, totaling four goals, including his first career hat trick in a season-opening win at Furman.
His playing time started to dwindle after Brad Smith returned from injury and moved from the midfield to attack. After a loss to High Point on Feb. 6, Duke rattled off seven straight wins, including three over top-five opponents. CJ played didn’t see any action in wins over Towson and Richmond, but then a soul-searching loss to North Carolina greased the wheels of change.
“After the Carolina game, Matt (Danowski, an assistant coach) came up to me and a couple other guys and said Brad (Smith) was moving back to the midfield and one of us was going to have to step up,” CJ said. “I immediately thought — this is my chance. I’ve always felt like I could be it, do it and be a guy. After that meeting, I thought I had to seize this opportunity. This is what I had been working toward.”
This was CJ’s chance to truly fulfill his dream from 2005 and he was not going to let it pass. The first victim of a reworked offense and a hungry Blue Devil team was Notre Dame. CJ was outstanding against the Fighting Irish, totaling two goals and two assists to spark Duke to a 14-8 victory.
“I knew all week I was going to play and get extended minutes, but I didn’t know exactly how much I would play,” CJ said. “I didn’t start playing very early in the first quarter. I got in and, I don’t know what is was, but I felt really comfortable out there. It felt like I’d been playing out there forever. Opportunities just kind of came to me. I capitalized on them and built confidence from that moment.”
His confidence only went up from there as he added four points in a win over Virginia; tallied two late goals, including the tying score, in an overtime win over Marquette; posted a career-high four goals in an ACC semifinal setback; and scored twice more in the NCAA first round win over Richmond to bring his total to 16 points in five games — six more than he had in all 24 of his previous outings.
Riding high on confidence and his internal fire, CJ took another step toward fulfilling his dream of playing on the big stage at championship weekend when he recorded a hat trick and four points overall to help the Blue Devils get past Notre Dame, 14-13, in the NCAA quarterfinal. That put him back in the City of Brotherly Love playing in the stadium where his dream sprouted 14 years ago.
In the NCAA semifinal game against No. 3 seed Virginia, CJ threw in two goals and dished out an assist, but the Blue Devils came up just short in double overtime to the eventual national champion Cavaliers.
In a cruel twist of fate that CJ has experienced throughout his career, he nearly lifted Duke to victory in overtime as the biggest shot of his career was denied by the pipe — thus denying the Blue Devils a crack at their fourth NCAA title.
Despite having to watch Duke’s chance of victory bounce off of that orange post and into the stick of a Virginia defenseman, CJ thinks back on all of the ups and downs and has no regrets.
“I’ve loved every minute of it,” he said. “Even as a borderline guy my sophomore year and finally being thrown out there. Even blowing out my knee and sitting around all of last year. Then playing a little bit in the beginning of this year, not playing at all and then playing again. I look back on it and I don’t think I’d change anything. I’ve absolutely loved it. I am cherishing every moment.”