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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Groundball Bacon, Approach-Angle Asparagus: Duke Lacrosse National Champs

When teams win - there is always more beneath the surface ... Virtue.

Lighter, looser Blue Devils avenge three straight Final Four losses

John Jiloty May 31st, 20102

The bus ride home from this year’s ACC Tournament at College Park, Md., was a productive one for Duke. Fresh off a disappointing 16-12 loss to Virginia, a group of Blue Devil seniors got together to talk and plant the seeds for their playoff run.

With two weeks before their last regular-season game (May 9 against Sacred Heart), the seniors knew that stretch would define their postseason. The next week, fifth-year senior Mike Catalino, who has dealt with a host of hip and knee injuries so bad that he nearly didn’t return to the team this year, basically looked like Rudy Ruettiger in practice — flying around and going so hard he actually had to sit one day out to recover.

That carried over to his message to the Devils the night before the Sacred Heart game, when every player got up in front of the team to speak about what needed to happen the rest of the way for Duke to be successful. Catalino went more big-picture with his speech than the players that spoke before him.

“I said ‘Tonight I’m going to sleep like a champion and tomorrow I’m going to wake up like a champion, and eat breakfast like a champion, and dress like a champion,’” he said. “We needed to take that same motto to everything we do, we do it like a champion. Excellence in being, not excellence in doing. We said that every single improvement over the next two weeks needed to be physical and mental.”

Duke blew out Sacred Heart 19-7 the next day, before getting a difficult — but apropos — draw in the NCAA Tournament, which ultimately set them up to avenge losses to Johns Hopkins (2008 NCAA Final, ’09 NCAA Semifinal), North Carolina (March 10), Virginia (April 23) and Notre Dame (11-7) and erase the doubts many lacrosse fans had in the Devils’ ability to win it all.

This year’s group of fifth-year seniors (Catalino, Tom Clute, Ned Crotty, Jon Livadas, Sam Payton, Steve Schoeffel and Dan Theodoridis) has undergone an amazingly mercurial ride at Duke. They went through the shortened season and false rape allegations in 2006, the coaching transition to John Danowski from Mike Pressler, the offensive transition from Matt Danowski and Zack Greer to Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani and the disappointment of losing in three straight Final Fours.

They also went through a brutal 2-3 start to 2010 after coming into the season as the favorite to win it all. Payton said Sunday that part of that was the Devils bought into the hype and didn’t fully realize the hard work that needed to go into a championship season. That was a big theme in May after the ACC Tournament, when the team really came together.

Duke was playing good lacrosse down the stretch, but it also didn’t come into the NCAA Tournament with the hype, or pressure, of the previous three years. As a result, most players say they played looser and lighter.

On the field after Duke’s overtime win in the NCAA Final Monday, Danowski said the main difference this year was that the team was more focused, with less distractions, than in the previous three championship weekends. The first two years were wrought with “emotional baggage” that proved unmanageable. And last year, Danowski said the team was “in awe of being there,” since they didn’t expect to make it.

This year, they were the No. 5 seed. And even the fifth-year issue got lost amid all the focus on Virginia and the death of Yeardley Love.

“I’m so happy for Duke Lacrosse. This doesn’t happen overnight,” Danowski said. “Sometimes you have to lose first. These guys have enjoyed the ride and enjoyed each other.”

A perfect example is the team menu announcements that became tradition late this season. Catalino said it started with him sending a random text message to Parker McKee that he was eating “groundball bacon”; from there Danowski picked it up and had Catalino do it before all team meals, including the all-important pregame lunch before the championship.

Catalino said he’s been running out of material lately, so he stayed up late Sunday night after consulting with the waitress on the menu. Ultimately, the Devils dined Monday on a feast that included “catch-and-shoot fruit”, “approach-angle asparagus”, “championship chicken”, “shoot-to-score spaghetti” and “groundball garlic bread”.   

Not sure what was on the menu for dinner Monday night, but it's safe to say the Devils ate like champions.

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