- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A flustered, exhausted Matt Danowski sat in the bowels of Gillette Stadium yesterday afternoon and reflected on why he returned to Duke for a fifth season of eligibility.

“To win a national championship,” the attackman said. “That’s it.”

It was not to be.

Johns Hopkins stunned the top-seeded Blue Devils 10-9, ending the latest run of a program accustomed to its status as the lightning rod of the lacrosse world.

It was the third time in four years the fifth-seeded Blue Jays (11-5) upended the Blue Devils (18-2) in the final four, with the lone exception coming in 2006, when rape accusations (which were later declared false) against three players cut Duke’s season short.

It was Johns Hopkins who fended off Duke in last year’s title game, spoiling what was built up as a tale of redemption. Danowski was part of a class that would leave without a title — until two days later, when the NCAA granted a waiver for all of the remaining players from the 2006 season.

There was little question of the motivation of the five fifth-year guys who returned — and the opportunity to play before a crowd of 48,224 on a comfortable late May afternoon in New England was safely affixed as the top priority.

“We came back for this reason,” fifth-year goalie Dan Loftus said. “To lose to them three times on this stage, but they just beat us today. They outplayed us in every facet of the game. Words can’t describe what it feels like not just for the fifth-year guys but for the team. It doesn’t matter what age you are at this point.”

Kevin Huntley scored four goals and Michael Gvozden made 17 saves for Johns Hopkins, which will meet third-seeded Syracuse (15-2) in tomorrow afternoon’s final.

The Blue Jays, who were jolted 17-6 in the teams’ April 6 meeting, proved far more formidable on defense this time around. Duke couldn’t find the same opportunities in the middle of the field, and Michael Evans and Eric Zerrlaut combined to hold Danowski and Zack Greer to a combined three goals and four assists.

Johns Hopkins built up a 5-2 lead early in the third quarter, only to watch it vanish in 45 seconds. The Blue Jays bumped it to 8-6 — with the aid of Huntley’s goal with less than a second remaining the third quarter — but Danowski and long pole Nick O’Hara scored in a six-second span to tie it with 7:07 left.

O’Hara, however, delivered a cross check on the ensuing faceoff, and Johns Hopkins exploited its only extra-man chance of the day moments later when Steven Boyle finished off a feed from Michael Kimmel.

“When they tied it and they tied it again, I wasn’t feeling real good,” Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. “I think it was huge for us to play with a lead and not to have to play this team from behind. They’re so good from playing out front. We felt like if we could play from in front, how would they react late in the game when we were ahead?”

Indeed, the Blue Devils again found themselves chasing Johns Hopkins in the end — much as they had in the one-goal tournament losses in 2005 and 2007. Midfielder Brad Ross brought Duke within 10-9 with 28.2 seconds remaining, but Gvozden deflected Danowski’s last-second salvo to clinch the victory.

It left Duke to again answer the questions that dogged it throughout the season. Many in the sport viewed the NCAA’s waiver decision as a knee-jerk reaction, and the thought of such a loaded team winning a championship was anathema to fans, coaches and players alike.

And so when Danowski was peppered with questions at the postgame press conference about how he felt leaving college lacrosse without collecting a title, the assembled players’ collective frustration became visible.

“What do you think,” Loftus said. “I mean, what do you think?”

Interjected coach John Danowski: “Fellas, don’t take the bait. Just don’t take the bait.”

Ultimately, this was a game far more about Gvozden’s slick play, Johns Hopkins‘ ability to control possession enough to set its preferred pace and Duke’s overall sluggishness than the enduring saga of two springs ago.

Matt Danowski said it wasn’t a matter of tight play for a team that played loose all season, but rather just a sloppy performance a team like Johns Hopkins frequently will exploit.

It’s a tough way to finish a career once — let alone twice.

“Last year was just sad and depressing,” O’Hara said. “This year is just kind of weird. It just wasn’t our day. A bad day to have a bad day, I guess.”

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