The mantle of “defending NCAA champions” has fit a little bit oddly on Duke this season.

Of the ten starters who helped the Blue Devils bring home their first NCAA title in program history, half of them were gone by the time Duke lost this year’s season opener to Notre Dame in a rematch of the 2010 championship game.  That group included 2010 Tewaaraton Award winner Ned Crotty, who led the team with 86 points last year, and Max Quinzani, who scored a team-best 68 goals. The team’s top returning scorer, senior attacker Zach Howell, has seen a slight drop in his production with 42 goals and 16 assists (down from 51 and 19 a year ago), with freshmen Jordan Wolf (31g, 20a) and Christian Walsh (20g, 13a) rounding out the Blue Devils’ attack unit.

Overall, however, the Blue Devils’ average margin of victory has slipped by less than a goal (4.45 to 3.52), as contributions from up and down the lineup have kept Duke’s offense one of the five most potent in the country, mere hundredths of a goal behind Virginia and Duke. Sophomore midfielder David Lawson has emerged as Duke’s fourth leading scorer (22g, 9a) after going scoreless as a freshman, while classmate Jake Tripucka heads to Baltimore with 19 points this season (9g, 10a) after recording just a single assist a year ago.

“The growth has been phenomenal watching these young men,” head coach John Danowski said. “Last year, Jake Tripucka was strictly a defensive middie, one of five that we played as a freshman, and this year we asked him to be an offensive middie, and we asked him to play extra time. Jake has done a great job in learning how to play and growing. Every week, he gets better.”

All told, while the Blue Devils have made it back to Baltimore, the changes to the makeup of the team mean this trip to M&T Bank Stadium is less about defending a title than it is about winning one.

“It’s the next step,” Danowski said. “It’s fun, it’s exciting, and the next group of really good players are Zach Howell and Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh, and they’re delightful to be around. It’s fun to come to practice every day, and it’s fun to come to work every day. It’s really fun to be working for another week and be around these kids.”

It may have been fun, but it hasn’t always been easy. The Blue Devils lost their next game after dropping the season-opening Sunshine Classic to a Penn team that was unranked at the time, and later lost another pair of back-to-back games to Syracuse and Denver in early April. The two pairs of consecutive losses match the previous total from Danowski’s four-year tenure at Duke, possibly a consequence of coaching a younger team after having a steady supply of veterans due to the extra year of eligibility granted to Duke’s players because of the 2006 season that was canceled.

“At the beginning of the year, I think I’d forgotten how to coach young teams,” Danowski said, “because even the last year at Hofstra, the team was old. The 2006 team that went 17-2, the key players were seniors. And so, it’s been five years for me of coaching older teams, and I’d certainly forgot, and you have to kind of readjust, focus on practice. This has been the most intense we’ve been as a coaching staff in five or six years, because every day required that. The youth – even the older players who weren’t sure where they fit in, they were trying to do too much. They were trying to act to act like Max Quinzani or Matt Danowski or Zach Greer. Just be yourselves. You don’t have to do more than who you are. I think it took us a while to get refocused, and you don’t learn about any of that stuff until you start playing games, and you don’t learn about any of that stuff until you start losing.”

It’s been a bumpy ride – “We have some really spectacular moments and some really strange moments,” Danowski said – but the Blue Devils have arrived at their desired destination once again. The reasons for Duke's success in 2011 are similar to the reasons for their success in 2010, even if the names and faces have changed.

“When you’re around people for an extended period of time, you start to understand what it is that you stand for and what it is that you believe in. We have a couple of what we call non-negotiable items. I’d like to think that at the end of the day, the guys know that we’re going to chase all ground balls with two hands on our sticks, and we’re not going to wine. We have a saying: ‘No Palms Up.’ You don’t give palms up to your teammates, your coaches or the officials. There’s a certain set of core values and beliefs that I hope they represent at the end of the day, but you don’t know that until you’re in the fire and you face adversity. If anything, that’s what I would hope that our teams represent, that we do stand for a certain core set of principles, a core set of beliefs.”

With those same core values, the Blue Devils have returned to the same city. All that’s left for Danowski and his team to do now is take on Maryland, and pursue the same end result.