Given all that he and his Duke teammates have been through the past couple of years, it would have been understandable if premier attackman Matt Danowski was a tad off his game this season.
The story of last year's fiasco is well known: the Blue Devils were the odds-on favorites to win the 2006 national championship - after falling a goal short in the 2005 title game. They stumbled out of the gate, losing to Maryland in Durham before becoming the focal point of a sensational and since-discredited rape allegation. Duke cancelled the team's season and Division I lax chased Virginia while the media chased the Duke "case".
With their season wiped out, their program's existence in doubt, their coach jettisoned and charges hanging over the heads of three team members, the Blue Devils under interim coach Kevin Cassese still somehow circled the wagons until reinforcements came. Danowski's father, John, left Hofstra to coach the team and right the program.
A huge burden was lifted from the team's shoulders when charges were dropped against Reade Seligman, David Evans and Colin Finnerty in April. But in lacrosse terms, life had moved on weeks earlier and the team had returned with fire in its belly, losing only a pair of one-goal games to Loyola and Cornell on the way to a stellar 16-2 campaign and a national semifinal with the Big Red.
Folks wondering how Duke has been able to compete at such a high level need to focus on Matt Danowski. The Farmingdale, N.Y. native is one of the five finalists in 2007 for the coveted men's Tewaarton Award, given annually to the nation's best player. As a sophomore Danowski totaled an impossible-sounding 92 points. In 2007 he has 91 with possibly two games remaining. But that's even more impressive given his new role and new responsibilities as Duke's unquestioned leader on the field. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior manufactures offense in real time, scoring plenty, with 42 goals, but dishing a national-best 49 times.
"It's a new thing for Matt as a classic behind-the-goal attackman," his dad said. "The offense runs through him, but we still need everybody to be involved to be successful. A lot of different people need to make plays for us."
Make no mistake about it, Matt still makes plays. It's just that, more times than not, he initiates them in conjunction with, rather than independent of, his teammates.
In 2005, Matt was allowed to freelance in the Devils' high-powered offense. Now, he's asked to operate more within a framework. "Most people don't realize that Matt was an off-ball player before," his dad said. "He was supposed to draw a slide before he passed the ball."
With the ball in his stick longer, Matt has been able to push the offense forward.
It hasn't always been easy. "I have a little more weight on my shoulders now," Matt said. "I have to do a lot more just to get the ball."
Having Zach Greer on the same attack unit has been beneficial, to say the least. Greer scored five goals - including his 56th goal of the season - in an 18-3 victory over Providence in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Matt finished with seven assists.
Still, opponents know they must come up with some sort of scheme to stop Matt before he finds Greer or any other open Blue Devil.
That is easier said the done. Just ask North Carolina, which surrendered 20 points to the potent Danowski (4 goals, 6 assists)-Greer (7 and 3) tandem in a 19-11 loss to the Blue Devils in the quarterfinals.
"Our frame of mind is, it doesn't matter what the other team does," Matt said. "We just have to stay disciplined. This is a completely different team this year, with a different personality." Speaking for the team quite comfortably, he really is the leader now. And he leads the pack for the Tewaaraton in most people's eyes. With only three days left in the 2007 lax season, Danowski is still in the running for the ultimate individual and team honors in collegiate lacrosse.
Don't count him, or the Devils out.
May 25, 2007
Photos courtesy Duke Sports Information
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