- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

BALTIMORE — Brad Ross walked into M&T; Bank Stadium on Saturday with Duke teammate Ryan McFadyen and realized much had changed since their first trip to the lacrosse final four in 2005.

The Blue Devils lost in the title game that year, then entered 2006 as prohibitive championship favorites. They lost more than half a season last spring when rape accusations prompted the school to suspend the program, only for the team to be reinstated last summer.

But roles changed for many Duke players as well. While some of the stars from 2005 — notably Matt Danowski, Zack Greer, Tony McDevitt, Casey Carroll and Nick O’Hara — remain, it was the improvement of players like Ross that allowed the top-seeded Blue Devils (17-2) to reach today’s national title game against No. 3 Johns Hopkins (12-4).

The junior, a Darnestown native who attended Bullis School, emerged with sophomore Ned Crotty as the Blue Devils’ most prolific midfield options this season. Both have improved throughout their first year on the first midfield, and Ross has scored twice in each of Duke’s three NCAA tournament games.

“I think especially for myself and Ned Crotty, this is kind of our first full season playing because we had last year taken,” said Ross, who has 20 goals. “This is 19 games [so far], so we’ve almost had two full seasons this year. The more experience, the better.”

Most of Ross’ experience before this season was tied to his faceoff work. He split most of Duke’s draws with Dan Oppedisano as a freshman and went 35-for-58 (.603) in the 2005 NCAA tournament as the Blue Devils reached the final, also against Johns Hopkins, in Philadelphia.

Then that summer, Ross found out there might be a chance to play in a final four close to home when the NCAA awarded this weekend’s event to Baltimore.

“I heard the final four was going to be here when I was a junior,” Ross said. “I was thinking maybe by then, I’ll be a player on the team.”

Ross created a larger niche for himself this season after the departure of midfielders Matt Zash and Kyle Dowd. Their absences perhaps were the Blue Devils’ biggest holes, and filling them figured to be a process requiring patience.

The team’s only holdover starter, Peter Lamade, drew a pole from the start of the season. That meant there would be a greater onus on Ross and Crotty to overcome the lost season and become viable options against short-stick defenders.

Ross’ answer was a plethora of shooting work, which continues even this late in the season. Duke practiced in the afternoon all last week leading into the final four, and coach John Danowski said Ross was on the field firing at a goal in the mornings to tune his shot.

“He’s unbelievable. He’s kind of the X-factor for us,” Matt Danowski said. “He’s always shooting. He always wants to get better. His dedication to the game and to improving is what kind of sets him apart from everybody else.”

Ross still needed some time to adjust but said it wasn’t until he scored three goals in Duke’s April 14 victory over Virginia that he truly felt comfortable. With Crotty following a similar arc, their play has created greater opportunities for Danowski and Greer, who have remained the focal points of the Blue Devils’ explosive offense.

“One of the things fans might not realize is when Matt and Zack go off for 10 points a game, that’s created by the midfield occupying guys with slides,” midfielder Ed Douglas said. “A lot of our offense is triggered by guys like Brad.”

The Blue Devils will need that type of play against Hopkins, the lone obstacle between Duke and its first national title. There are few similarities between this and the teams’ championship meeting in 2005, when the game’s overtones didn’t stray too far from the happenings on the field.

“I think it means a lot, but at the same time being here means a lot,” Ross said. “Coming back and showing we can come back and we’re here. They tried to put us down, and we came back. We’re a bunch of tough kids, and we stick together.”

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