Air Force Undermanned, Overmatched Against No. 1 Duke


Duke senior attackman Justin Guterding doled out a career-high seven assists to go with three goals Saturday in an 18-4 season-opening victory over Air Force.

DURHAM, N.C. — Prior to Duke’s season opener with Air Force Saturday, Blue Devils coach John Danowski was asked about the 2017 season. Perhaps, he said, last year’s team had been high-scoring, but “on the last day, we still gave up 16 goals.”

Indeed, in an NCAA quarterfinal showdown with Ohio State, Duke’s defense was exposed in a season-ending 16-11 loss, the Blue Devils’ third straight playoff exit short of championship weekend.

But after smothering a veteran Air Force team 18-4 on Saturday to open the 2018 season, Duke appeared to have gone a long way toward fixing that weak spot.

“Defensively, we’re a year older,” Danowski said. “Most everybody’s back. So you hope they’d have a little more chemistry and better dynamic.”

Along with returning all three starters on close defense, Danowski noted the Blue Devils added fifth-year senior Kevin McDonough, a transfer from Penn.

“I thought we did a good job from the ground,” Danowski said. “Guys really competed when the ball was on the ground.”

The top-ranked Blue Devils led 16-3 early in the fourth quarter when both teams started substituting deep into their bench. Prior to that point, Air Force had barely managed to get a quality shot, let alone threaten to keep up with Duke’s offense, led by Justin Guterding’s career-high seven assists to go with three goals.

In the first half, the Falcons managed two goals on fast breaks off of dominant faceoff work from Trent Harper, but could not manage a goal from their set offense until fewer than two minutes remained in the half. Duke outshot Air Force 22-11 in the first half.

“We allowed them to have some success in the invert [offense] early in the game and have some uncontested shots for goals,” Falcons interim head coach Bill Wilson said. “That’s the first game of the season and certainly not the end of the season.”

While Air Force rarely threatened on offense, the Falcons had no answer for Guterding and Duke’s offense. Over and over again, Guterding drove from a wing or behind and drew double-teams that left teammates open for uncontested shots. Duke dominated nearly every statistic. The Blue Devils won ground balls, 32-23, and were 17-for-18 on clears while breaking up five of Air Force’s 15 clear attempts. The sole bright spot for the Falcons was Harper, who won 16 of 26 faceoffs.

Duke scored all of its goals in a span of 42 minutes. They Blue Devils needed eight minutes to get on the board and stepped completely off the gas over a scoreless final 10.

It was a dramatic rewrite of recent history. Air Force had come to Durham to open each of the past two seasons and left with one-goal wins both times. And this was not an entirely depleted Falcons roster, though Saturday’s drubbing marked a bad end to a terrible offseason.

Air Force, the two-time defending Southern Conference champion, returns its top seven scorers from a roster that qualified for each of the last two NCAA tournaments. However, two significant starters from a year ago — two-time All-American attackman Chris Walsch and all-conference defenseman and team captain Brandon Jones — were not in Durham. Team officials would only say they “did not travel with the team,” but an offseason hazing scandal at the military academy swept up a large portion of the team’s roster and coaching staff with suspensions.

Wilson was reinstated in December and is serving as interim head coach in place of Eric Seremet, whose status is unclear. Wilson said Saturday he could say very little about Seremet’s situation except that he expected to remain as the interim coach “indefinitely.” Both Seremet and the players who were missing Saturday, including Walsch and Jones, remain listed on the team’s active roster. Overall, the Falcons listed 55 players but traveled with just 39, according to Wilson, though it was unclear how many of those left behind would normally have traveled.

Typical of Air Force’s afternoon was a series with three minutes to go in the third quarter. Trailing 13-3, Nick Hruby, Air Force’s top returning scorer besides Walsch, took the ball behind and, from a pick, was able to draw a short-stick defender just off the right side of the goal. He put on a series of moves that drew a double- then triple-team, leaving him mobbed by defenders in front of the goal. From that pile-up, he managed to flip a pass to a teammate and, as Duke’s defenders scrambled to get back in position after collapsing on Hruby, two quick passes put the ball in Air Force’s Sean Lowrie’s stick, undefended and feet from the goal. His shot went wide and Duke goalie Turner Uppgren won the race for the restart.

“Duke has a very talented group,” Wilson said. “I told our guys I’m proud of how hard they played.”

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