Reigning champ Duke chases 2nd straight NCAA lacrosse title

May. 23, 2014 @ 05:23 PM

Duke carries a target and a question mark with it as it makes its usual trip to the NCAA men’s lacrosse semifinals.

The top-seeded and reigning national champion Blue Devils are the clear favorite to win two games at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, starting with the semifinal matchup against fifth-seeded Denver Saturday(1 p.m., ESPN2).

No. 7 seed Maryland and No. 6 seed Notre Dame meet in the second semifinal.

While the Blue Devils (15-3), playing the men’s lacrosse Final Four for the eighth consecutive year, are the favorite, they will play today with a hole in their starting lineup.

Senior Josh Dionne suffered a right knee injury during last Sunday’s quarterfinal win over Johns Hopkins that has ended his season and his Duke career. Dionne scored 49 goals in 17 games this season, including four against Johns Hopkins prior to his injury.

Now, he’s Duke’s newest coach, spending his time on the sidelines on crutches trying to help his teammates win the program’s third NCAA championship.

“It’s what I wanted to do next year so it’s like I’m getting an early internship on it,” Dionne said.

As for his spot at attackman in Duke’s lineup, that job now belongs to junior Kyle Keenan. Duke averages 15.06 goals per game, No. 2 among NCAA Division I teams and tops among the four teams in Baltimore this weekend.

Keenan’s job is to keep the high-powered Duke offense rolling. Count Dionne among those who believes he is more than capable.

“Everyone is going to put the thing (on him) that he’s got to replace me and he doesn’t,” Dionne said. “He does things that I’m not as good at. He has his own game.”

Keenan has certainly shown the ability to score and help teammates score this season, especially in Duke’s two NCAA Tournament games. With 19 goals and nine assists in a reserve role this season, Keenan’s 28 points are 12 more than he had in the previous two seasons combined. He has 13 points over his last 13 games, including eight in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Duke coach John Danowski is confident Keenan will do a good job as he moves from reserve midfielder to starting at attack. The Blue Devils have plenty of other scorers around him, led by national player of the year candidate Jordan Wolf (59 goals, 33 assists). In the midfield, Myles Jones and Deemer Class have 33 goals apiece.

“We don’t rely on one person,” Danowski said. “We never have. One person can become great scorer in our system. But we still believe that the system is greater than the player. The next guy steps up. We really believe that and I don’t think anyone is going into Saturday with any trepidation at all.”

Following the win over Johns Hopkins last Sunday in Newark, Del., Keenan and his teammates learned the extent of Dionne’s injury and that he wouldn’t be playing this weekend in Baltimore.

Keenan said that was difficult for him to accept.

“I got pretty emotional after the game because Josh and I are best friends,” Keenan said. “It was just really tough to see him go down. But it’s got to be next guy step up. We have to keep playing. We have a game to win.”

Keenan, though standing 5-foot-11 and weighing 173 pounds, has been nicknamed “Moose” by his coaching staff and teammates. He’ll do his best to come up big for the Blue Devils today.