May 22, 2010

By Jon Marks
Special to NCAA.com

PRINCETON, N.J. - The Blue Devils are headed back to the Final Four for the fourth straight year next weekend in Baltimore after taking apart archrival North Carolina 17-9 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I Men`s Lacrosse Championships on Saturday at Princeton Stadium.

Not only does that set up a national semifinal against the winner of Sunday's quarterfinal between No. 1-seeded Virginia and host Stony Brook, it avenges an early season Duke setback at the hands of the Tar Heels. For North Carolina, it's an extremely bitter pill to swallow, this being the third straight year Duke has sent the Heels packing from the tournament and fourth in the last five.

"The first time we played them, we really lost our poise,"' said coach John Danowski, who lifted starting goalie Mike Rock late in the first half of that game for Dan Wigrizer, who limited the Heels to just three second-half goals. "They got the lead, and we did some really uncharacteristic things defensively.

"But that's 10 weeks ago. I'd like to think we've worked on some things since then and gotten better."

Does that mean the Tar Heels, who started 10-0 before splitting their final six games, got worse?

"It was the first time we'd beaten Duke in years,'' said defender Ryan Flanagan of the win that snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Blue Devils. "I think that's where we hit a lull toward the end of the season.

"A lot of us hadn't been there before, and we didn't handle it well. I think the next step of the program is to know what to do when we have that success. Now we know that when we're playing well at the beginning of the season, it obviously doesn't mean much."

The Blue Devils, on the other hand, began to turn the corner. Since then they've been knocking over virtually everyone in their way, the lone blemish coming April 23 against Virginia. Now they may have a shot at redemption.

"I want Virginia,'' said senior Max Quinzani, who scored three goals, giving him 64 for the season. "This is my fourth year of Duke lacrosse. Of the four, this is the team trending to excellence. This is the first time we're hitting our stride at the right time." Zach Howell led Saturday's onslaught with four goals, followed by Quinzani and Ned Crotty with three apiece, while Steve Schoeffel, Justin Turri and CJ Costabile each scored twice. Costabile's first came just 11 seconds after North Carolina's Thomas Wood had cut it to 11-8 late in the third. That triggered a six-goal Duke surge over a 10-minute span that broke it open.

"Winning those faceoffs gave us momentum," said Danowski, who took over in Durham in 2007, after the second half of the 2006 season was canceled due to the scandal. "That and our success on ground balls are important to us." It also proved to be too much for North Carolina to overcome, as goalkeeper Chris Madalon made just six saves while surrendering all those goals.

"I didn't think it was his fault," said Tar Heels coach Joe Breschi, who got a career-high four goals from Jimmy Dunster, while Thomas Wood and Billy Bitter scored twice apiece. "They just won a lot of faceoffs and ground balls.

"They just made more plays on us, just as we made against them in the regular season. They played with a sense of urgency we didn't match."

Now it's back to the Final Four for Duke. The Blue Devils got to the championship against Johns Hopkins in 2007, Danowski's first season, but have been bumped out in the semis the last two years by Hopkins and Syracuse, respectively.

"It's hard to think back to those other games," said Danowski. "But why shouldn't we feel confident the way we're playing right now?"

Indeed, the Blue Devils seem to be peaking when it matters most, having scored at least 12 goals in 11 of their last 12 games.

"Every year you say, `This team feels right,' " said Crotty, whose three assists raised his school record to 60. "Now we're just going to keep doing what we're doing. "It's worked great for us so far."

Next stop. Baltimore and the Final Four -- again.