Boasting a Championship-Caliber Roster Once Again, Can Duke Reach The Top?

(Photo Courtesy of Duke Athletics)

Since John Danowski arrived in Durham ahead of the 2007 season, the Blue Devils have done nothing but win. Duke has made 13 consecutive NCAA Tournaments during the Danowski era, which includes 12 trips to Championship Weekend and three national titles.

Duke has been one of the most successful and consistent programs in the nation over the past decade or so. From their success on the recruiting trail to their success on the field, Duke has been amongst the elite of the elite in college lacrosse and doesn’t look to be leaving that group anytime soon.

As far as sheer talent from top to bottom is concerned, the 2021 Duke team was looked at by many coming into the season as possibly the best Duke team of all time and a borderline write-in for, at least, Championship Weekend. The added transfers, such as Princeton grad transfer attackman Michael Sowers and goalie Mike Adler from Saint Joseph’s, in addition to the number of returnees, both veteran and underclassmen, provided Duke with one of the most talented and deepest teams in college lacrosse, on paper.

Duke’s “super team,” as many dubbed them, did have a pretty strong season. The Blue Devils opened the year on a 10-game winning streak, not recording a loss until traveling to South Bend to face Notre Dame on April 10th, and ended the year with a 14-3 record. However, Duke saw their season come to a close in a rather distasteful manner, losing to Maryland in blowout fashion, 14-5, in the NCAA Semifinals.

The Blue Devils did make it to Championship Weekend for the third consecutive full season. But in a season that many expected to be one of the best, if not the best, in Duke lacrosse history given how talented this roster looked on paper, it wasn’t necessarily the winning that many will remember. It’s the inconsistencies and meer flatlining that we saw from this team on a regular basis.

Nowhere can the inconsistencies of last year’s Duke team be seen more than at midfield. While the Duke attack saw a starting line of Michael Sowers, Brennan O’Neill, and Joe Robertson every game except in a very few instances, the same can’t be said for the starting midfield. Just in non-conference regular season play alone, the Blue Devils trotted out six different variations of a starting midfield line. And through the course of the entire season, the number of variations seen is nine. Only three variations were seen more than once, and only two were seen in consecutive games.

Duke went with a starting lineup of Nakeie Montgomery, Dyson Williams, and Owen Caputo in their first contest against Notre Dame and then trotted out the same lineup in the regular-season finale against North Carolina, and in all three NCAA Tournament games. That line put up a combined 20 points (13 goals) in those five games and was only held scoreless once (NCAA Quarterfinals vs Loyola).

Beyond the inconsistencies with who got the starting nod at midfield from game to game, the number of variations the Blue Devils played within a single contest was borderline absurd. In addition to the Duke offense as a whole, which many expected to have a 2014 Jordan Wolf feel to it with Michael Sowers running things at X, looked different, in many respects, from a playing style practically every game.

If there was ever a case of being too talented or too deep, Duke lacrosse in 2021 might be the perfect example. A team that was so highly-regarded, especially on offense, coming into the year practically flatlined to end the season.

2021 is in the rearview mirror and the focus has shifted to 2022. Again, Duke comes into the season boasting one of the most talented rosters in the nation and has a serious chance to get back to Championship Weekend, and be that last team standing on Memorial Day. The lessons learned by this team and coaching staff, alike, from last season’s failures may very well help them put all the pieces together correctly this coming spring.

Offensively, Duke returns the majority of their production from a year ago. Sophomore attackman Brennan O’Neill was the Blue Devils’ second-leading point-getter and ACC Freshman of The Year last season with 55 points (45G/10A). Fifth-year attackman Joe Robertson (36G/18A) and midfielder Nakeie Montgomery (15G/22A) were the team’s third and fourth-leading scorers with 54 and 37 points, respectively.

In addition to that trio that looks to headline this offense coming into the 2022 season, Dyson Willams (23G/2A), who started the first three games attack and final four at midfield last season, returns for his junior season as one of the Blue Devils’ best goal scorers and Owen Caputo (20G/5A) is back for his senior campaign and looks to be a major impact at the midfield once again.

Aidan Danenza (5G/8A) and Cameron Mulé (7G/1A) are just two of many returning reserves who could very well step up even more and be the mix as potential starters this spring after putting up solid showings during the 2022 seasons. Midfielder Cameron Badour also returns after suffering a season-ending injury after starting at midfield during the first five games of the season last year.

Duke returns a pretty deep offense in 2022, but they also add a talented crop of newcomers who only add to that depth and talent. Former Penn attackman Sean Lulley will be using his fifth and final year of eligibility in Durham while midfielder Grant Mitchell comes to Duke following two solid seasons at Ohio State. The two highlight a much smaller transfer class than last season for the Blue Devils and are expected to make a significant impact this spring, especially Lulley as he can very well take on that role at X that Michael Sowers occupied last year.

Highly-rated freshmen Andrew McAdorey and Jackson Gray, among others, could also see significant time this spring.

Similarly, the Blue Devils also return a heap of talent on the back end with defenseman JT Giles-Harris being their only major loss. And while replacing him is nearly impossible, returning the majority of starters from a top-20 scoring defense (10.24 goals per game) is a plus.

The biggest of those returnees is goalie Mike Adler. A grad transfer from Saint Joseph’s, Adler enters his second year in Durham following a 2021 campaign that saw him start all but one game and post a .529% save percentage off 162 saves. With him returning for a second year in Durham, the Blue Devils look to again have one of the most seasoned veterans anchoring things in between the pipes on defense.

Out in front of Adler, the Blue Devils return a trio of poles who have made a significant impact at close defense, and could very well be the three starters at close from the get-go this spring. Junior Tyler Carpenter (72GB/23CT) led the Duke in caused turnovers and saw time at both close and LSM last season while junior Kenny Brower (21GB/11CT) is the only returning pole who started all 17 games at close last season. Senior Wilson Stephenson (19GB/4CT) returned from his gruesome leg injury suffered in the 2019 quarterfinals and thrived in 2021, starting the final nine games at close.

The trio highlight a defensive unit that also returns a number of role players, such as Braden Burke, from last season and also adds a solid group of newcomers with Marist transfer Jack Zukowski and freshmen Keith Boyer. Duke appears to be much more top-heavy on defense than their counterparts on the other end of the field, but the talent is still there and this is a unit that should be expected to, at least, stay on par with what they did last season. That is especially true with Adler in cage.

At the faceoff dot, it is Jake Naso’s job to lose. He came onto the scene strong as a freshman, going 227-for-361 (.629%) as the Blue Devils’ top option and ending the year ranked 10th in faceoff win percentage nationally.

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