The Ohio State’s men’s lacrosse team (14-4) has come a long way in establishing a name for itself this season.
But in order to further cement their legacy, the Buckeyes will have to find a way to advance past one of the “blue bloods” of collegiate lacrosse when they take on the Duke Blue Devils (13-4) on Saturday in the NCAA quarterfinals in Hempstead, New York.
As senior midfielder Jake Withers said, OSU lacrosse has emerged as a perennial contender from the middle-of-the-road team it was when he first joined the program, back when teams like Duke dominated the NCAA year in and year out.
“When I first came in four years ago as a freshman, even just four years ago, there wasn’t much parity,” Withers said. “And now, we’re up there with the Dukes and the (Johns) Hopkins and the Marylands, the blue bloods that people that you battle every year, but at the end of the day, it’s going to be one of those four teams in the final four. But now, it’s kind of an open field, and we’re one of those teams that could win it and nobody would be surprised.”
The class of elite lacrosse programs is small. In the 46 years there has been an NCAA championship, only 10 different teams have laid claim to a title, and only five have won more than Duke’s three titles.
Compare the tradition-rich history of Duke with OSU, a team that has reached the quarterfinals fewer times than Duke has made it to the finals. The Buckeyes have never made it past the quarterfinals in the 64 years of their existence.
OSU managed to beat Duke 16-11 back in their last tournament matchup in the first round of the NCAA tournament back in 2015. However, they lost in the next round to eventual-national champion Denver 15-13.
But that was a young team back then, and Withers said that with the experience the team has now, the Buckeyes are prepared for the challenge ahead of them against Duke.
“I feel like, in the few years before this, we’d go into this game, just being new to the Big Ten and having a tougher schedule that coach (Nick) Myers has put together and just being sort of star struck,” Withers said. “Now that we have some experience with these blue blood teams in the sport, we feel like we can play alongside anyone and beat anyone any given day.”
The Buckeyes come into this game with plenty of experience. On their starting lineup, five regulars are seniors (including two fifth-year seniors), three are juniors, one is a sophomore and another is a freshman.
The Blue Devils, however, do not enter this game with a lot of experience. Their starting lineup has only three seniors, one junior, two sophomores and four freshman. And Duke has come to rely on its younger stars, as three of its top-10 point scorers are freshmen.
“Obviously, (Duke is) a little bit younger team than they’ve had in the past few years, but they’re playing really good lacrosse right now, and getting up and down the field really well,” redshirt senior midfielder Tyler Pfister said. “So that’s something that we’ve really focused on this week, and really trying to counter as well.”
Despite their youth, the Blue Devils have been red-hot all season long, and have continued that trend into the tournament. Over their past two games, they have scored 37 goals, including a 19-6 thumping of the tournament’s No. 6 seed, Johns Hopkins, in the first round.
And scoring goals in bunches is nothing the Blue Devils are unfamiliar with. During the regular season, they were ranked the No. 7 scoring offense, averaging 13.18 goals per game. And though the goals scored jumps off the page, they have also been one of the better defensive teams in the nation, allowing only 7.94 goals per game, fifth lowest among Division I schools.
OSU coach Nick Myers believes that Duke is not only one of the most talented teams the Buckeyes have faced, but one of the most athletic.
“Duke’s so athletic from restraining box to restraining box,” Myers said. “They have a very skilled attack, you know certainly 14 (junior attack Justin Guterding) up for player of the year, 90-plus points. They have some great scorers. But from box-to-box, they’re as athletic as any team we’ve played.”
If the Buckeyes hope to find success against a potent offense like Duke, they will need to improve from their last game against Loyola (Maryland). Though they won the game 7-4, they turned the ball over 19 times, and redshirt-senior goalie Tom Carey was called on to make 12 total saves.
Senior midfielder JT Blubaugh said the team has worked on slowing the offense down in practice and taking their time with their shots. When they get rushed, they make mistakes like they did last week, he said.
“I felt like last week, we were a little bit rushed on the offensive end, which hurt us obviously,” Blubaugh said. “Anything inside of kind of 20 seconds is kind of too quick. You’re not really making the defense work as much. But we’re aiming to play kind of in the 30 second to 45 second range. That’s kind of the sweet spot where we feel really good.”
Myers said that with so much to prepare for, and so much on the line in this win-or-go-home game, it would be easy for a team to begin to feel the pressure. But as the team’s coach added, his group has remained focused during practice, and treated this upcoming matchup as nothing out of the ordinary.
“The quarterfinals — it’s that next win that you’re certainly seeking to get to championship weekend,” Myers said. “And I think you kind of have to put that aside and focus on what’s going to get you there, which is a great week of practice, great preparation, attention to details, and this group really owned that.”