May 1, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum
NCAA.com


In high school, Ned Crotty was always one of the last guys to show up to lacrosse in the spring. A hockey player, too, out of the Delbarton School in New Jersey, the seasons overlapped by a few weeks.

So, he’d occasionally miss some things. A few new schemes. Getting to know new personnel. Changing positions from where he’d played his entire lacrosse life to something entirely new. The basics.

“I remember I showed up the first day of lacrosse and my coach was like ‘You’re playing attack this year’,” the former midfielder said.

This year, going into his senior season at Duke, a team that was faced with replacing arguably the most lethal offensive tandem in the history of NCAA lacrosse in Zack Greer (the NCAA’s all-time leader in goals) and Matt Danowski (the all-time leader in points), he was told that he’d be moving up from midfield, where he’d played for three years, to attack.

“This year, I had a little bit more warning,” he said with a laugh.

Fifteen games – and 12 wins – later, the Tewaaraton Trophy nominee and ACC Player of the Year is one of the top attackers in the country. Still playing with the vision of a midfielder, 43 of his 60 points have come off assists – 10 more assists than anyone else in the country, with the 60 points tied with North Carolina’s Billy Bitter for tops in the country. He and Max Quinzani (37 goals), accounting for just under 40 percent of the Blue Devils’ offense this year, have gone a long way in replacing Greer and Danowski (who accounted for just under 50 percent of Duke’s scoring last year).

But this isn’t the same Duke team that Sherman Tanked itself into the national championship game two years ago and the national semifinals last year. Last year at the end of the regular season, the Blue Devils had scored 148 goals. This year, they’re at 106. Last year, they’d lost just once. This year, they have three on the record, including one to then-unranked Harvard.

But, just like last year and the year before, they’re ACC Champs, with an automatic bid to the Tournament. And, Crotty said, a year of trial and error, a year of an early fall and a prolonged climb and a year in which everybody’s in on the action might make this team more primed than any of the three before it – including two of the most successful teams in Duke history – to finally bring home a national title.

“I’m sure a lot of teams counted us out, especially after the two losses, but we knew we were gonna be a work in progress,” Crotty said. “Our ultimate goal is to get to Foxborough and get the national championship. And having been there for the past two years, that’s all we know, is that feeling of getting to Foxborough and playing for that.

“So anything less,” he continued, then paused. “I don’t want to know what that feels like. We want to get to that last day and be able to hold the trophy up.”

When the season started, coach John Danowski told the players that this would be “a coaching year,” with a huge chunk of the team’s offense gone to graduation or departure. The cogs weren’t in place anymore. There’d have to be some feeling out, some time taken to re-align the gears.

And some time to allow for, invariably, a crash.

It happened early.

On Feb. 22, the second week of the year, then 2-0 and fifth-ranked Duke invited Harvard to Durham. Harvard left with a 9-6 win, handing the Blue Devils their first loss by more than one goal since 2005 and the lowest goal total (six) since that 2005 season [click here for the podcast with Harvard coach John Tillman after the win].

Then, a week later, Duke came back with an 11-8 loss to ACC rival Maryland at the Face-Off Classic at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The Blue Devils hadn’t lost consecutive games since 2004. It took them 20 games to lose twice last year (with the second coming in the national semifinals to Johns Hopkins, 9-8).

“When we had that losing streak, Harvard, Maryland, that’s not something Duke lacrosse has seen in a while,” Crotty said. “But we knew we weren’t gonna stay that way. We were gonna get better.”

They fell to No. 13 in the country. Then the goals started coming. In the first four games, Duke scored 34 goals. Over the next four, the Blue Devils netted 53, including 11 against then-No. 14 Loyola and 12 against then-No. 8 North Carolina.

A loss came to Cornell the following week, on Mar. 17, with the No. 3 Big Red rolling to a 10-6 win. The Blue Devils haven’t lost in six games since.

“We’ve had three losses, played in tight games, in the ACC championship we had 2 huge game in 3 days,” he said. “The championship was fast up & down all game in 90 degree weather. And in the past couple years, we haven’t played any close games in the regular season.”

The wins have come easy (12-6 against Dartmouth), and they’ve come hard (15-13 over North Carolina in the ACC championship game). They’ve been over unranked teams and they’ve been, most notably, over the No. 1 team in the country – twice.

On April 11, Duke handed then-top-ranked Virginia its first loss of the season, 15-10, a game in which Crotty tallied a career-high eight points. Then, in the first game of the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils and Cavaliers met again, with the Cavs yet again in the No. 1 spot.

It wasn’t even close.

The goals came from everywhere, with Duke taking a 16-5 win, showing the spread-around scoring that’s made six players this year 20-point scorers (with Mike Catalino – 19 points – and Will McKee – 17 points – in striking distance this weekend), whereas only five were last year.

Three days later, Duke ground out a 15-13 win over North Carolina for the title – Crotty and his classmates have never lost to UNC – in a game where C.J. Costabile, the Blue Devils’ face-off specialist, scored three goals.

“It goes back to how well-rounded we are,” Crotty said. “At any point, you can shut down me, shut Max, shut Brad [Ross], shut Steve [Schoeffel] – somebody’s gonna step up. We haven’t relied too much on any one guy. Last year we didn’t, but subconsciously we were like ‘we’ll give the ball to Matt or give the ball to Zack’.”

“The past two years have been a lot fun, but I think this year’s been the most enjoyable we’ve had because we’ve come so far and worked so hard for what we’ve earned,” he said. “In years past we’ve really worked hard but it’d kind of come a little easier. So this year’s been a lot more fun, and to have the kind of season we’re having and the amount of guys who have stepped up – it’s definitely nice.”

The Blue Devils wrap up the regular season on Saturday, taking on St. John’s at 1 p.m. in Queens.

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WEEKEND PREVIEW

Duke (ACC champs) and Navy (Patriot League champs) have already secured bids to the NCAA Tournament. But 14 more are left to be filled, with four auto bids going out this weekend when the D-I Tournament field is announced (along with the D-II and D-III for men’s and women’s) on Sunday. The men’s announcement will be televised live on ESPNU at 9 p.m.

The most intriguing situation (or, in the words of our esteemed podcast producer Adam Aizer, a quagmire – skip to the 00:38 mark in the podcast linked above for a vocabulary-off) is in the Ivy League, where Cornell’s loss to Brown last weekend set up a temporary three-way tie for first in the conference between Cornell, Brown and Princeton. On Saturday, two of those teams go at it, with Brown taking on Princeton on the road at 1 p.m. Saturday.

If the Bears win, they take a share of the conference title and edge Cornell by virtue of last week’s tie-breaking win, earning the Ivy’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

If the Tigers win, they take a share of the title, but would ultimately lose the tiebreaker to Cornell (after the Big Red won the matchup earlier this year), giving the Big Red the conference title and the automatic bid.

Elsewhere, the CAA and America East are already in action, with Villanova (who scored four unanswered goals with 8:12 left to upset No. 9 Hofstra in Wednesday’s semis) taking on Towson in Saturday’s CAA Final and UMBC (who needed double-OT to beat Binghamton on Wednesday) taking on Stony Brook in the America East tourney finale on Saturday.

The final two conference tournaments, the MAAC and GWLL, open Friday. In the MAAC, it’s Siena taking on Providence and Mount St. Mary’s taking on Manhattan.

In the GWLL, the only remaining undefeated team in the country, No. 2 Notre Dame, takes on Quinnipiac. In the other matchup, Air Force clashes with Ohio State. For the Irish, a title would mean an undefeated pre-NCAA Tournament season, which they certainly don’t want to give up. But they can almost definitely afford a loss and still get in. For the other three teams, a win means an auto-bid, and probably the only chance that any of the trio has to get into the Tournament.

In the tournament-less ECAC, UMass holds its fate in its hands. After a great regular season that’s seen the Minutemen pull off some big wins and falter at times, if UMass can drop Rutgers on Saturday, it takes the ECAC Championship over current first-place team Loyola (who takes on Johns Hopkins this weekend in a non-conference, but still massive, battle of Charles Street in Baltimore).

Finally, we get to two teams on the cusp. No. 19 Colgate takes on No. 1 Syracuse on Saturday, most likely needing a win (a win over the top-ranked team in the country, no less) to get in after a three-OT loss Navy in the Patriot League Tournament) to get in, while No. 17 Georgetown needs a big performance over Penn State to have a shot.