It was all over in five seconds. C.J. Costabile '12, a defensive midfielder, won the faceoff in the overtime period, knocked the ball forward, scooped it, and ran toward the goal. No one moved to defend him. Ten yards from the goal, he looked around. He was still alone. The goalie moved his stick toward the ground, expecting a low shot, but the ball sailed high over his shoulder and into the back of the net.
The Duke lacrosse team had won its first national championship. Five seconds took the sting out of five disappointing seasons.
This year they were underdogs, seeded fifth in the tournament, and they faced teams who had beaten them earlier in the season in each of the final three rounds. "It was definitely redemption for us," says co-captain Parker McKee '10. Redemption and relief.
The first team Duke faced in this year's NCAA tournament, Johns Hopkins, was a reminder of their past struggles on the field. Hopkins had beaten Duke in the 2005 and 2007 championship games, both times by just one goal. In 2008, they beat Duke in the national semifinal, also by one goal. Coach John Danowski says that this opponent, arguably the product of the most accomplished program in the history of college lacrosse, opened his team's eyes. "There were no opportunities to think it would be easy," he says. With history in front of them, Duke trounced its former tormentors 18-5.
In the quarterfinals, Duke played the University of North Carolina, which had embarrassed the Blue Devils earlier in the season. Another blowout. This time, Duke won 17-9, putting the team in a familiar place, the national semifinals. They went as far last season, losing to Syracuse to end the season. And so when the Blue Devils played top-seeded Virginia, who had beaten them in the ACC tournament, they were determined to prevail. After falling behind early, Duke grabbed the lead in the second half and rode it to victory, 14-13.
Then, against the stingy defense of Notre Dame, Duke fought for sixty minutes, only to see the score tied when regulation time expired. Five ticks later, they were champions.
The championship team included seven players left from the 2006 team whose season was cancelled amid allegations—later proved to be false—that players had sexually assaulted a dancer hired to perform at an off-campus party. Three scholarship recruits remained from a class that was scheduled to play its freshman season in 2007, when the future of lacrosse at Duke seemed uncertain. McKee, the co-captain, was among them. So was co-captain Max Quinzani '10, who says that the spirit of this year's team, largely made up of players who hadn't experienced the events of 2006 on campus, was different.
"I think that in years past, this final game was more confusing for people because they were playing for so much more," Quinzani says. "And this year, things were so much simpler, just because [you] were really playing for the guy next to you, as opposed to this big, huge trial," he says.
A big reason was the efforts of Coach Danowski, who stressed structure and discipline and, at the same time, provided affirmation for his players, allowing them, as he puts it, "to hear that they've done a good job." He says he feels that winning the championship will only add to that growing sense of equilibrium—a return, after four years, to "more normalcy than crisis management."
Danowski took the head-coaching job in 2006 when the program was in turmoil. His son, Matt Danowski '07, A.M. '09, who had been a member of the embattled team, was on the sidelines—this time as a fan—when Duke captured the title. Father and son embraced. The win was cathartic, John Danowski says. "To say that it wasn't, we'd be kidding everyone. Worst of all, we'd be kidding ourselves. But you do have to lose first before you learn how to win."