An unusual mix of lacrosse players found a way to gel

The 2021 team was made up of transfers and fifth-year seniors

The Duke men’s lacrosse team finished the regular season ranked second in the nation, tied for the ACC championship. The players were the top seed in their bracket in the NCAA. And they made it to the semifinals. But the unique complexity of the 2021 men’s lacrosse team found expression moments after a one-goal win over Syracuse in March, its first ACC game.

As time ran down, Duke clinging to a one-goal lead, a Syracuse attack man took a pass in the crease and shot directly into the goal mouth—where goalie Mike Adler made a point-blank save, winning the game. That’s Mike Adler, extra year of eligibility, graduate student—and transfer from St. Joseph’s University. You might call him a COVID transfer, one of some dozen extra players who swelled the Duke roster this year. Last year’s seniors, granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, returned en masse, getting graduate degrees from the Fuqua School of Business. And students transferred to Duke, too. Graduates of Princeton, Amherst, Dartmouth, students who decided to use their extra year of eligibility to chase a championship with Duke.

Which left returning goalie, last year’s standout Turner Uppgren, not defending the goal for the most important play of the season thus far but on the sideline watching Adler make the save. Not on the sideline for long, though: Uppgren led the charge of celebrating teammates onto the field. Then, not long after the game, on Twitter, from Adler, this: “Not a big Tweeter, but Turner Uppgren is the best teammate I have ever had.”

Something special was going on in the Duke locker room.

At that point, even having a locker room was an upgrade. “We didn’t have a locker room in the fall,” said coach John Danowski. “We didn’t have the traditional social time they’re used to having. Going to a football game, a women’s soccer game, going to the movies together. All those things that are synonymous with college living have all been removed,” because of COVID. Players wore masks in the weight room, came and went without socializing, adapted to the normal of the moment. The NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to athletes whose 2020 seasons were cut short raised the potential for locker-room friction. A class of rising seniors, expecting their moment in the spotlight, suddenly had last year’s starters coming back. Add in the transfers, stars from other schools who graduated and then, with extra eligibility, took advantage of a sudden opportunity to play for an ACC championship, to chase a national title. The team ended up with fifty-six members, where usually there are somewhere in the forties. A team that usually has a few graduate players this year had fourteen.

Yet instead of churn, instead of resentment or frustration, the 2021 team came together, a team in every sense of the word.

Uppgren explains. Given the opportunity to return—he had been a graduate student, earning a master’s from Fuqua; this year he completed his M.B.A.—he jumped: “I’d be here eight or ten years if I could.” But then “we found out there was going to be a ton of transfers, so we didn’t really know what was happening.” One of whom turned out to be one of the nation’s outstanding goalies. Uppgren was the goalie last year, a team captain the year before, and now… “How are you ready for something like that?” he asks. “There’s no playbook on it. So yeah, you’re literally just taken aback. And then I think the cool part is that initial reaction of, you’re not maybe thrilled or whatever, but then you get to meet these guys, and all that just goes out the window.”

With Adler on the team, Uppgren had competition in goal, and every athlete accepts that someone wins and then you move on. He saw Adler’s Tweet after the Syracuse game. “Obviously it’s great praise, and it means a lot coming from someone like Mike.” Last year he started in goal for a team with championship aspirations whose year was cut short by COVID. This year things are very different, but “now that I play less, you’ve got to find ways to contribute, right? I guess the case with Mike is if our team’s going to be successful, Mike’s successful, so how can I make Mike as successful as possible in the position he’s in?”

That means coaching from the sidelines, accepting complexity, and working with it.

Stories like that fill the roster. Princeton graduate Mike Sowers, considered by many the best player in college lacrosse, used his extra year to come to Duke. But no special treatment: Sowers remembers getting a little fancy in practice one day. “I threw a behind-the-back pass, and it didn’t go so well.” He shrugged it off on the field, as did everyone else. “After practice, Coach D called it out. This is, like two hours later. And he was just saying, ‘That’s not the way we do things around here.’ ” Sowers came to Duke along with his teammate Phil Robertson, older brother of senior attacker Joe Robertson. Joe was ready for his senior year in the sun, and then into the locker room walked not only Sowers but Joe’s older brother Phil.

But instead of sibling rivalry, the Robertsons felt like they were living out a childhood fantasy. “It was a dream” to play for the same school, Phil says. A year apart, they were pulled in different directions by recruiting. So though Phil recalls being devastated by the cancelation of the season and by the Ivy League’s decision not to grant its seniors additional eligibility, “I immediately started talking with Joe and kind of just said the only place I would want to play lacrosse would be at Duke with Joe.” They not only played together but lived together, in one of several houses of senior and graduate lacrosse players. Joe completely agrees. “Being separated in college and being on my own has made me realize how much I miss him, as corny as that sounds. We’ve always been best friends even through high school, so there wasn’t a single second I was going to regret this. I was just super-pumped.”

It also meant that Phil got to watch one of Joe’s greatest moments. Duke, then ranked number one, played Carolina, ranked number two, in April, and the game went to overtime. “You know,” Phil says, “growing up, like in the backyard, we were always joking around like, ‘Overtime, five seconds on the clock, counting down like, five, four, who scores the game-winning goal?’ ” In this case the ball came to Joe. “I was watching the play develop,” Phil says, “and as weird as it sounds, I saw Joe get the ball, and I just kind of knew he was going to score.” Which he did.

“And aside from running and stampeding the field with all your teammates and grabbing them, the excitement of an overtime win, after the fact I was just like, ‘I just got to watch my younger brother score the game-winning goal against UNC, playing at Duke, number one versus number two.’ That’s something I’ll never forget.”

When Coach Danowski looks for the roots of the team’s success, he doesn’t point to the heavy roster. He traces them back directly to 2006, when the program collapsed amid false accusations of rape at a party and a general reconsideration of team culture. When the team disbanded in 2006, he says, every member of the team had permission to transfer to any program in the nation. “They had no coach, no future, in a sense, and all the seniors got together,” he says. “And they say, ‘Listen. We’re not going anywhere. We’re finishing what we started.’ All thirty-four kids stayed. Nobody transferred. And the reason I tell you that story is because I think that’s when the foundation of the program as I know it was built.”

And it’s not just love or team spirit, he says. Kids who this year lost starting spots at Duke could have played at other top schools, but they stayed—and practiced, and offered coaching and criticism. Adler agrees. “Once I got here, the culture is so ingrained,” he says. “The culture’s been this way for like ten years now, however long Coach Danowski’s been here. And the guys were super-welcoming, but you still had to earn your spot. Guys wanted to hear your story, wanted to see what you’re about. You had to be vulnerable, honest with them, and that was kind of a big thing.”

Outcompeting Uppgren at goal was intimidating. “Everybody loves Turner,” he says. “He’s kind of the heart, he’s the soul of the team. So in that aspect it was a bit off, but it was a competition, and I like that. I wouldn’t want to be handed anything, so that was awesome.” And once he’d won the job? “Turner handled it better than I could’ve handled it. He was giving me tips, telling me what Duke lacrosse was all about. He just became kind of that rock.” Adler has another year of eligibility remaining (he red-shirted his freshman year after being bitten by a shark) and hopes to stay another year.

This is what Danowski is talking about. “It has not been easy for these young men,” he says. At the end of last year’s suddenly canceled season, the program knew these issues would come up. “But we knew team chemistry needed to trump everything else.”

It has. When asked for moments that define the season, nobody talks about winning goals or comeback victories. J.T. Giles-Harris says he took “all of maybe thirty, forty minutes” to decide to stay on for a fifth year. He expected “to compartmentalize, and think that I had my senior year, so I’ve got to let these guys have their senior year and run the show and stuff.” Still he was elected captain for the second year running. He praises his teammates for their willingness to offer—and accept—the criticism that makes the team better, but looking back at the year, he talks about an almost mundane moment sitting on the field after practice as the sun goes down. “It’s cool lighting at practice, and we’re all just sitting there listening to Coach talk. You look around and see what we’re talking about and who everyone is, and it’s a cool experience.”

But he also brings up a moment several other players did, which came after the overtime win against Carolina. “So it was like 10:30, 11 at night, whatever. And as people are leaving the field, you see like eight guys that didn’t play and a couple guys that did play out on the field, like shooting or doing wall ball.” After that exhausting overtime game, they still had a hunger for practice, for lacrosse. “You know, we won the game, but they’re still working.”

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