Four Takeaways from Fall Classic with U.S. Men's Coach John Danowski


John Danowski speaks to the U.S. men's team in pregame during the Fall Classic this weekend. Danowski and his staff have one more in-person evaluation opportunity before naming a 23-player roster.

John Danowski has been through this before. That won’t make it easy, but it should make it easier.

Danowski’s task over the next two months is to pick a lacrosse team from a 52-member player pool loaded with Premier Lacrosse League stars and the top college players in the game.

How could he go wrong?

On the other hand, he’s going to reject over half of that star-studded lineup of players when he gets down to the final maximum roster of 23 that will represent the United States in the World Lacrosse Men’s Championship in San Diego next June.

People will roast him. How could he cut Player A? Or Player B?

Getting to the final 23 in far from an easy task. Fortunately, Danowski, also the head coach at Duke, won’t have to do it alone. Alongside him are two coaches that were with him when he led the U.S. to a gold medal in 2018 — Navy head coach Joe Amplo and Hofstra head coach Seth Tierney. Joining the group for this run is Loyola head coach Charley Toomey.

“I trust them implicitly,” Danowski said. “Everybody has input, this is a collective decision.”

Here are four takeaways from Danowski following this weekend’s Fall Classic, when the U.S. played a Blue-White exhibition on Friday night and then swept reigning NCAA champion Maryland in a pair of close games on Saturday.

#1 Maryland Was Well-Prepared

Maryland was ready for the challenge of playing the U.S. team. Maryland head coach John Tillman is rightfully one of the most respected coaches in the sport and he also had plenty of help from his assistant coaches — brothers Jake and Jesse Bernhardt. The brothers both played for Danowski on the gold-medal winning 2018 U.S. team.

“Jake and Jesse know what we do, and Maryland was very well-prepared,” laughed Danowski.

Jake is still playing in the PLL, but is not in the player pool for this U.S. team. Jesse is hoping to make his third U.S. team and had a strong showing, including netting an assist in the U.S. team’s 5-4 win over Maryland in the first of their two games.

The close games helped created a needed opportunity for the U.S. team in the evaluation process.

“It was great that both of those games were close,” Danowski said. “We want to see those guys perform under pressure. We split the teams up and we don’t know how the chemistry is going to work.”

#2 Equity vs. Eye Test

One of the things that Danowski and the staff will have to weigh is what matters most — past performance or what they’re seeing now.

“You have guys that have built up equity playing in the PLL, but then you have the eye test in tryouts,” Danowski said. “Is that just a bad couple of outings?”

There’s no question that the final training weekend — at the IMLCA Players Summit in Florida this December — will help guide some of those decisions.

#3 Don’t Lose Yourself

Eminem might not like it, but “lose yourself” is not something Danowski wants to see.

“Everyone is capable, that’s the number one thing,” Danowski said. “No one is perfect. Everyone is trying so hard to be compliant and do what the coaches say that they lose themselves a little bit.”

While this team will likely be younger than the veteran squad that triumphed in 2018, Danowski knows that a veteran presence will be important in tense atmospheres.

“Experience matters,” Danowski said. “This is a hard thing. Guys were nervous and gripping their sticks.”

Being able to overcome that is key. The U.S. and Canada have alternated championships since 2002 with the U.S. looking to become the first repeat champion in more than two decades. The difference between the rivals has been razor thin. In the last eight matchups between the two countries in World Lacrosse championship play the cumulative score is Canada 80, USA 79.

#4 How to Build?

There are myriad ways in which Danowski can build his roster. Does he break the offense down by attack and midfield or does he look at guys like his own current and former players from Duke — Brennan O’Neill and Michael Sowers — that have the versatility to play midfield and create unique matchup problems for opposing defenses.

Building the defense is just as daunting. “All of those guys are capable of playing on the ball,” Danowski said. “Playing off the ball is the most important thing.”

How do you measure that with limited practice time?

With only 23 spots, how many guys at each position do you take? There are so many approaches to how to put the roster together.

Ultimately, Danowski says the final decisions are going to be determined in part by how the roster starts.

“The four coaches have to get together and look each other in the eye and ask, ‘Who do you think has made it?’. The next question then becomes, “Who can play with those guys?”

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