It's hard to mistake lacrosse player Matt Danowski's Long Island roots. The soft r's and hard g's that litter his speech are a dead giveaway. But seeing as how there are thirteen players from the area on this team, it's not the accent that sets him apart. It's this six-foot, 180-pound player's stickhandling and shooting ability that make him one of the premier lacrosse players in the nation. Leading the NCAA with ninety-two points this past season, Danowski, now a junior, was voted first-team All America, and was one of five finalists for college lacrosse's highest individual honor, the Tewaaraton Trophy. He led Duke to a 17-3 record.
Duke's success was unexpected. The previous season was considered a rebuilding year, as the team was forced to rely heavily on younger, less experienced players. "We had something like fifteen to seventeen freshmen and sophomores playing," Danowski says. The Blue Devils won only five games, but the "experience and confidence" gained were key factors in preparing last year's team to prevail against more seasoned opponents, he says. Indeed, this young Duke team almost upset senior-led Johns Hopkins in the national championship game that ended in a 9-8 loss. Only one starting player graduated, and so Danowski has high hopes for the coming season. "Next year, I expect to be in the same place, but in a happy locker room," he told The Chronicle after the loss to Hopkins.
Despite their success, Danowski and his fellow lacrosse players are largely unheard of and unheralded on a campus where high-profile sports such as basketball and football dominate the collective sports consciousness. A low recognition factor has its pluses, Danowski says. Small-sport collegiate athletes tend to be grounded by their relative anonymity and more focused on academics and life after the game. "You look at all the good lacrosse schools and you see they're also very good schools. Duke, Georgetown, Princeton. I think the kids who play lacrosse have more of a balance between academics and athletics."
But if national trends are any indication, the anonymity of players like Danowski may soon change. Lacrosse is North America's oldest sport--it was played by Native Americans as early as the fifteenth century--and now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it may well be the country's fastest growing sport. According to US Lacrosse, 354,361 people played the game in 2004 compared with 253,931 in 2001. "I think we're at a crossroads, with the sport growing unbelievably," Danowski says. "Kids are playing all over the place."
Professional indoor and outdoor lacrosse leagues are also picking up steam as a new generation of lacrosse players comes of age in America. The introduction of the two-point goal line and sixty-second shot clock in professional lacrosse indicates this generation's willingness to morph the traditional game into something faster and more modern. Tommy Hilfiger designed the uniforms for Major League Lacrosse, and TV networks are now broadcasting both the NCAA and professional championships.
Robbyn Footlick '85, a producer for ESPN, says that there is a clear link between the growth of the professional game and the increasing popularity of amateur lacrosse. "I think that the very existence of a professional lacrosse league indicates that someone thinks that this is a viable business, and that people are willing to pay money to see the sport."
But not all sports are enjoying such surges in visibility. Women's golf, for example--well-established on the professional level--is struggling for attention on the collegiate stage. The Ladies Professional Golf Association has been around for fifty-five years. It offers $45 million in total prize money and features such stars as Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb. However, Footlick points out, this popularity has not trickled down into the amateur arena. "Golf at the college level isn't nearly as visible as on the professional level," she says.
Indeed, although the women's golf team is one of the winningest teams in any sport at Duke in recent memory, its success has gone largely unnoticed on campus. In May, the Blue Devils won their third national title in six years. With that win, head coach Dan Brooks tied the university's record for the most NCAA championships held by only one other Duke coach--Mike Krzyzewski. But no benches were burned in the name of Blue Devil women's golf.
Anna Grzebien, a sophomore who had never won a tournament, not only led the team to victory with rounds of 73, 75, 65, and 73, but also won the individual NCAA East Regional Championship, the NCAA National Championship, and the Honda Award for Golf, given annually to the best female collegiate golfer. In June, another Blue Devil, rising junior Brittany Lang, tied for second place--and tops among amateurs--in the U.S. Women's Open, one of four LPGA majors. "We get disappointed," says Grzebien, "because, if you talk to some people [at Duke], they don't even know we have a women's golf team."
Grzebien, who plans to join the professional tour after graduation, says she believes that the relative anonymity of golf, like that of lacrosse, will change in the coming years. "There is a new golf generation coming up that has attracted more coverage by TV and magazines." According to Footlick, the numbers of outlets for these sports are increasing with the advent of what are called "niche networks."
A prime example is ESPNU, a college-sports version of ESPN that provides coverage of sporting events ranging from spring football practice to women's bowling. "The continuing growth of niche cable networks," Footlick says, "can only offer more opportunities for less visible college sports"--opportunities that Duke lacrosse and women's golf are primed to take advantage of.
After the Ball
October 1, 2005