The clock struck midnight on the Michigan men’s lacrosse team’s season in Albany on Saturday.
During an uphill battle in the pouring rain, the Wolverines (10-7 overall) fought to sustain their season but ultimately came up short, losing 15-8 to the No. 1 overall seed Duke (15-2).
The Blue Devils, a team with three First-Team All Americans to Michigan’s none, seemed to be an insurmountable opponent, but the Wolverines had been upsetting top teams since March. Comfortable within its role as an underdog, Michigan fought valiantly, knotting the score up at two each as the first quarter ended.
Although Duke’s First-Team All American and Tewaaraton Award favorite attacker Brennan O’Neill hit two quick goals to put Duke ahead early, the Wolverines responded, netting two goals of their own from junior midfielder Isaac Aronson and graduate attacker Bryce Clay, including one on penalty time.
“When you have a Tewaaraton finalist just playing at a high level, it doesn’t matter what you do Xs and Os,” Conry said.
Going into the second quarter, Michigan was right where it wanted to be — on par with the No. 1 team in the country — but a three goal run by the Blue Devils in the first four minutes seemed to take some air out of the Wolverines. Duke would go on to score another two goals towards the end of the half, with O’Neill contributing an additional two goals.
“Sometimes you’ve got guys on the other team that are just that talented, just that good,” senior midfielder Jacob Jackson said. “(O’Neill) got the better of us.”
On the other end of the field, the Blue Devils’ defense was aggressive and suffocating. While it would go on to earn Duke a whopping five minutes of penalty time, the Wolverines certainly felt the pressure, committing a number of turnovers. Senior attacker Josh Zawada capitalized off of one of the man-up opportunities, however, and Jackson contributed a goal as well to bring the score to 7-4 going into halftime.
“We were getting our shots, but they were contested,” Michigan coach Kevin Conry said. “And (their) goaltender played great. … We thought we had great looks, and he ended up swallowing up on us.”
The third quarter found the Wolverines digging themselves deeper into the hole. Although graduate defenseman Andrew Darby and the Michigan defense better contained O’Neill, the rest of the Blue Devils took advantage of the opportunities presented to them, slamming home another four goals. On the Wolverines’ offensive end, however, Michigan’s star attacker, junior Michael Boehm, didn’t attempt a single shot, leaving the Wolverines in dire straits.
Early in the fourth quarter, though, Zawada was once again able to connect, bringing Duke’s lead back to four points. But the Blue Devils and O’Neill were not going away easily. O’Neill flipped a shot over his shoulder, while facing away from the goal, to send Duke on a four goal run that Michigan could not come up with an answer for. With no goals from two key pieces of the three-headed attack that the Wolverines had built their fantasy season on, Michigan surrendered to the Blue Devils.
“(Duke was) built to win a national championship right now,” Conry said. “And we aren’t yet. But we have established a really great framework.”
This NCAA Tournament run came off the backs of a team that shocked the country, beating Ohio State twice in one week, Maryland twice in the season, and emerging Big Ten Champions after going 0-5 in conference play just one year before. The first round knockout of No. 8 Cornell only reinforced what the Wolverines had been saying all season – “Why not us?”
“If you would have told me last year that this year we were going to lose in the quarterfinals to Duke, I would have been ecstatic,” Jackson said. “Especially after the year we had. But I don’t think there’s any going back from this season.”
“When you look at the season that we had, we almost became America’s team, the Cinderella story,” Conry agreed. “The problem with that in the future is that everybody knows who you are. We don’t sneak up on anybody.
“We’re not going to be Cinderella anymore. The ball is over.”
Although the curfew on the Wolverines’ season may have come sooner than they would have liked, this season sets an unforeseen precedent in the history of Michigan lacrosse. Although they won’t be Cinderella anymore, Michigan has the opportunity to become something even better — a great program, not just a historic team.