As Walsh grows accustomed to new role in midfield, Duke’s offense finds rhythm heading into title game
PHILADELPHIA — Christian Walsh struggled to remember the last time he played midfield. Not in high school — he was always an attack. Barely in college — he began his career as a midfielder for all of two games as a freshman.
“I really hadn’t played midfield since—jeez—I think seventh grade?” Walsh said. “Sixth, seventh grade.”
It started as a move out of necessity when coaches suspected Deemer Class had mononucleosis. It’s become one of convenience.
Since Walsh slid back to midfield before Duke faced Loyola (Md.) during the regular season, the Blue Devils (15-5) have turned their season around. No. 7-seed DU has won 13-of-14 games since moving Walsh to midfield and won its first nine after he changed positions. Now, a Duke team that started 2-4 with Walsh playing his natural position sits one win away from a national championship. The Blue Devils face top-seeded Syracuse in the NCAA championship at 1 p.m. Monday at Lincoln Financial Field.
Walsh moving to midfield allows Case Matheis to start at attack alongside Josh Dionne and Jordan Wolf — who tallied four points in Duke’s final four win over Cornell — and its fostered a brilliant chemistry between Walsh and midfielders David Lawson and Jake Tripucka. The trio combined for 11 points on Saturday.
“It’s just about having the best six offensive guys on the field and balancing out the first-team midfielders,” Walsh said.
Walsh is still learning his new position. “It’s still a work in progress,” he said, “even this far into the season.” But his high lacrosse IQ has made it an easy change for the team. His individual stats have slipped, from 49 points a year ago to just 31 this year, but the offense has been wholly more efficient.
Last year, another final four year for Duke, the Blue Devils scored 11.5 goals per game. This season that number’s bumped up to 14.
“It just helps Dave and I play with him because he knows the game so well, it’s just an easy transition,” Tripucka said. “He can play just about any position, and it’s been huge for us having another guy out there who can play.”
It leaves SU head coach John Desko in a predicament his opponents usually find themselves in: planning for an offense with 10 reliable scoring threats.
The Orange features 10 players who scored in double figures this season. Duke has 11. Two freshmen, Class and Myles Jones, combined for 27 goals this season. They didn’t even score against the Big Red.
More so than anyone, maybe even Syracuse, Duke’s depth carries it.
“It just speaks to take one of their starters, to put him up top, give them some more depth in the midfield,” Desko said. “It’s going to make sure that you know that their attack is pretty strong, too, if they’re going to bump guys like that up top.”
For six games, though, that offense just didn’t click. Duke limped to a 2-4 start. In three of the four losses, the Blue Devils failed to crack double digits.
Then DU faced the Greyhounds. Duke managed just nine goals in that game, but it was a turning-point victory. The Blue Devils rattled off nine straight wins starting with that game and turned a 2-4 start into its seventh straight final four appearance.
“We started clicking,” Wolf said. “I think that was just a big confidence booster against a great team.”
Walsh, making his first start at midfield, managed just one goal in that game, but it established what the Blue Devils are about this season.
Walsh cracked the scoring column with a fourth-quarter goal to put Duke up by two in the final frame. A goal by Wolf eventually iced the game for the Blue Devils.
Since then, Walsh and Duke have learned their new roles and identities. Duke doesn’t need one player to carry it; the Blue Devils just need to play smart and grind out victories.
Walsh just needs to be solid in the midfield, chipping in as one of Duke’s 11 viable scorers. He doesn’t need to perfect the midfield position — even if he is getting pretty close.
“I have a pretty good understanding,” Walsh said, “but it’s a little bit different than playing attack.”
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