Michael Sowers, Brennan O'Neill Fuel Duke's 12-10 Comeback Win Over Denver


With three goals and one assist, Brennan O'Neill made the most of his college debut.

The ball, fittingly, finished in Michael Sowers’ stick.

After the heartbreak of last season at Princeton. After the headlines when he headed to Durham with his extra year. After the hype intensified the past couple months and the pronouncements of the Duke “super team” got louder before a Friday afternoon game on Super Bowl weekend, Sowers was in the spot where he feels most comfortable. Where everything in the world makes a little more sense, if only for an hour or two.  

As the seconds ticked down at Koskinen Stadium, Sowers shimmied and evaded two Denver defenders. He did not race toward the goal. No extra theatrics were necessary. 

There was no shortage of them in Duke’s roaring 12-10 comeback win over the Pioneers. 

“The emotion that I think everybody was feeling was, ‘I don't know. I don't know how we're going to do today,’” Duke coach John Danowski said after his 200th win at the university. 

His team achieved that feat despite a first half when it was clear which team had already played a game this season and which had not in 332 days. Sowers’ first goal in a Duke uniform — which he literally kicked in after colliding with Denver goalie Jack Thompson — was indicative of the sloppy start. 

Several passes went awry for the Blue Devils. The Pioneers dodged to the top side almost at will. Their passes seemed as crisp as the Colorado air. After surrendering the first goal — a Sowers assist to freshman Brennan O’Neill — Denver surged to a 6-1 advantage and led 8-4 heading into halftime. The Pios dominated possession in large part because sophomore Alec Stathakis went 11-for-13 on faceoffs in the first half (he finished 19-for-25). 

“I was obviously nervous,” said O’Neill, who tallied a hat trick in his collegiate debut. “With this whole pandemic, it’s been two years since I've played a real game. You gotta shake off the cobwebs a little bit, but I felt like everyone else was at first just as nervous as we should be. And once we settled in, we ended up playing like ourselves.”

“It’s not going to be perfect right away, and it won't be in the spring either,” Duke assistant Matt Danowski cautioned in an interview during the fall. 

The Duke second half, and the separate four-goal runs within it, were a testament to the team’s depth. It was evident earlier, too, when graduate transfer Mike Adler was pulled in favor of Turner Uppgren with 13:23 left in the second quarter. After Adler made three saves while allowing six goals, Uppgren made 11 saves the rest of the way while surrendering four goals — good for a 73.3 save percentage. 

“We all have really good relationships that help a lot,” Uppgren said of the goaltending corps, while also commending Adler for making him better on a daily basis. “Obviously, we all want to start. We want to play as much as possible, but we understand that there's one net and one guy plays.”

Still, Uppgren approached the home opener as he would any game despite initially starting on the bench. “Then you wait and see what happens,” he said.

There were notable absences, with attackmen JP Basile, Cam Mule and Joe Robertson missing the game due to the school’s health protocols. But 29 players saw the field for Duke. Nine different players scored. Six registered at least one goal in the second half. 

“It's hard for them,” Danowski said of the attention and hype O’Neill and Sowers (one goal, three assists) receive. “You know, Michael has got to live up to this reputation of being King Kong, and you're not. You weigh 160 pounds. You're not King Kong and your teammates are pretty good and you have to learn to play with your teammates, and he will, he made the road today. He does a lot more than just handle the ball.” 

After Sowers found O’Neill for two consecutive scores from the left wing in the third quarter, Sean Lowrie and Owen Caputo added goals to cut the Denver lead to 9-8. After Ethan Walker scored on a fast break, Duke senior midfielder Nakeie Montgomery ignited another four-goal run with a high bounce shot with 30 seconds to play in the third. Reilly Walsh, a fifth-year senior midfielder, sealed the win with a lefty dodge down the alley that Uppgren said he has never seen his teammate pull off before. 

The hope, Danowski said, is that the veteran-heavy roster provides not only leadership, but performance.

Yesterday, Danowski posed a question to fifth-year senior and two-time captain JT Giles-Harris, who knows the pulse of the team maybe better than anyone besides Danowski himself. 

“What do you think?” Danowski asked while walking off the practice field. 

“I’m curious,” replied Giles-Harris, the US Lacrosse Magazine Preseason Defenseman of the Year. “I’m curious to see who we are. What we have.” 

What they had this afternoon was enough. It was also the first step in the direction to answering that question. 

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