DURHAM, N.C. — It’s almost exactly 400 miles from Philadelphia’s Franklin Field to Duke’s Koskinen Stadium, which meant the Blue Devils’ bus ride back from a loss to Penn in late February felt like an eternity.
Justin Guterding sat down, rarely bothering to mutter anything as Saturday segued into Sunday, but he was thinking.
About how one play could have changed the outcome of a 10-9 loss. About things he wished he could have back. About every granular detail of Duke’s first setback of 2018, Guterding’s final year in a Blue Devil uniform.
“You can just tell how much that ate away at him,” said midfielder Sean Cerrone, who sat next to Guterding the entire trip back. “He barely spoke. When he did speak, it was meaningful and about the game — basically how pissed off he was about the loss. He’s the kind of guy where if the team loses, he wishes he could’ve done more. All of us do, but you really get that sense from him.”
There is nothing subtle about Guterding, the latest in a string of standout Duke attackmen from the last 15 years. There was Matt Danowski and Zack Greer, Max Quinzani and Ned Crotty and Jordan Wolf, their potent numbers providing a linear connection to the rise of Duke as a powerhouse in the sport.
Guterding’s statistical connection to that bunch is undeniable. He enters Sunday’s NCAA tournament quarterfinal against Johns Hopkins with 58 goals and 41 assists, four points shy of matching Wolf’s single-season Duke record. He needs 16 points to match Danowski’s career points record.
It doesn’t stop there. With another two goals, he joins Greer, Quinzani and Wolf in Duke’s single-season 60-goal club. Only he, Crotty and Danowski have recorded a 40-assist season with the Blue Devils. He and Greer are the only players in school history with three 50-goal seasons.
Yet there’s one reason he came to Duke, and it wasn’t to leave as the Blue Devils’ career goals leader. (With 204, he needs three to pass Greer, which would also give him the NCAA Division I record, since the association does not recognize the 42 goals Greer scored as a fifth-year senior at then-reclassifying Bryant in 2009 for the purposes of recordkeeping.) And he’s not bashful about expressing his objective, a refreshing approach in a sports landscape too often littered with one-game-at-a-time platitudes when the main aim is obvious to all.
“It’s more that I came here to win a national championship,” Guterding said. “It’s for our senior class. We’ve worked really hard for it, and that’s what everyone came here to do. Obviously, we get a great education, but we really want to win a national championship and that’s important for us. From a legacy standpoint, it’s not that you wouldn’t be respected by the alumni, but people talk about it and it gets remembered forever.”
Cerrone began his college career at Villanova, but opted to transfer and play his final two years at Duke. A Long Islander like Guterding, Cerrone had not met his new teammate until a coincidental encounter the summer before he arrived in Durham.
Cerrone made his way over to a complex in Garden City, N.Y., to get some shooting in. It was 8 a.m. when he met Guterding, already drenched in sweat.
“This kid’s got it,” Cerrone thought to himself.
It was there from the moment he arrived at Duke, when he inherited Wolf’s place as the dynamic lefty on attack. But he wasn’t the offensive centerpiece his first two seasons — midfielders Deemer Class and Myles Jones were — and his responsibility was to finish near the crease, work hard and not chirp much.
That’s changed over the last two seasons and especially this year in a captain’s role. And Guterding has also fine-tuned his intensity knowing his approach doesn’t work for everyone.
But it does work for a lot of the Blue Devils.
“I have noticed over time that it has rubbed off on other guys, that guys are looking to me to make that statement, whether it’s on the field or in the locker room,” Guterding said.
Duke’s postseason showings the last three years make the determined star an ideal match for this team. The Blue Devils reached Memorial Day weekend in each of coach John Danowski’s first eight seasons. Then came first-round ousters in 2015 and 2016, followed by last year’s forgettable 16-11 quarterfinal exit against Ohio State.
This month’s tournament — which began with a 17-11 rout of Villanova last weekend — is the last chance for Guterding and the rest of Duke’s seniors, and a reminder isn’t necessary. Still, he shows up for extra shooting before practice and sticks around for more after practice. He spends plenty of time scouring video with assistant Matt Danowski. He almost never stops working.
“It definitely gives guys on the team something to strive for,” Cerrone said. “It’s a role model. You could be this way. It’s easy. You just have to be determined to do it. Especially him being so close to everybody on the team, people understand there’s an off-the-field and there’s an on-the-field, but when you’re off the field there’s a still a part of you that never leaves the field, and he’s got that.”
But it doesn’t necessarily flow all from Guterding, an indication of the pride in a program with a high standard for excellence.
“I think it’s a mix of both,” defenseman Cade van Raaphorst said. “He’s one of our three captains, so everybody looks to him for leadership and looks to him to make a play. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we do mirror a lot of that. … There’s a good mixture of him leading the way and us mirroring that, but also the same drive. What we’re doing reflects on him as well.”
For the most part, it’s worked. Since the long ride home from Penn, the Blue Devils (14-3) have lost only twice: a one-goal setback against Syracuse in late March, and a lethargic 14-11 defeat against Notre Dame in the ACC semifinals.
Historically speaking, the conference tournament loss isn’t a cause for alarm. The Blue Devils fell in the ACC semifinals in 2010, 2013 and 2014 — and then didn’t lose again. A repeat would ensure Guterding avoids a rerun of last year’s quarterfinals, when he lingered in the locker room at Hofstra and contemplated the impact of a season-ending loss.
“He’s a determined cat,” attackman Joey Manown said. “He definitely just wants to get out there and do it. He couldn’t wait for this spring and I know he wants it really badly this year.”
Added John Danowski: “I think it’s always been good. For me, it started here with Matt. He was that guy who was driven by that. Ned Crotty was driven by that. Max Quinzani was a brilliant student — he works for Goldman Sachs and had like a 3.5 — but he was driven in the weight room. He was one of the strongest guys. Jordan Wolf was that. Luke Duprey on the defensive end was that. … I do think having your best player be your most driven player is really positive.”
However crushed Guterding was after the quarterfinals last year, he wasn’t going to tune out lacrosse the next weekend.
Those stories about guys so devastated by a year-ending loss or a miserable season that they shun the sport for the rest of the season? Guterding’s isn’t one of them.
“I can’t pretend it’s not happening,” Guterding said. “You can’t pretend you didn’t win and it didn’t happen. I just needed to watch it and let that sink in.”
He saw Maryland celebrate the end of a title drought, just as North Carolina had the year before. A few days later, Terrapins star Matt Rambo was named the Tewaaraton Award winner. Guterding, responsible for a 51-goal, 46-assist season, was not one of the five finalists.
It felt like one of the quietest monster seasons from a Blue Devil (or any ACC player) in recent memory. It wasn’t completely unnoticed (Guterding was a second team All-American), but it didn’t generate an inordinate amount of attention.
Did he feel his junior season was overlooked?
“No, because we didn’t win,” Guterding said. “If we won a national championship and I wasn’t first team All-American and wasn’t a Tewaaraton finalist, that’s totally different, because I feel awards come as you win. Rambo was a great player. Was he the best player in college lacrosse? Probably not. But his team won. That’s something coach always [says]: If you win, the awards will follow. All I really care about is winning because that will follow. It’s not something I really worry about. I’ve had plenty of motivation that I don’t need awards or watch lists.”
Duke won a bunch this spring, and Guterding unsurprisingly has an invitation to the Tewaaraton ceremony. Since all five finalists are still playing on the season’s penultimate weekend, there’s a good chance Guterding’s point will hold up this year as well.
Remove the potential winner-take-all element, and it’s an interesting conversation. Danowski points out no one player is likely to carry a team, and attackmen’s statistics are tied directly to the ability of the rest of the offense.
Guterding has benefited from the versatility of midfielder Brad Smith, freshman Joe Robertson’s stellar finishing ability and the addition of Georgetown transfer Peter Conley to boost the midfield. Guterding, though, is the one shooting 49.2 percent despite drawing as much attention as anyone on the roster.
“His numbers don’t lie,” van Raaphorst said. “I think he’s the best attackman in the game. He’s up there with the best of them, and he manages a game well. I think the growth for him has been from the standpoint of being that manager. … He’s tough to guard. His points show that, too. He’s a smart player. He’s slick.”
Guterding has continued to develop in the latter half of his college career, with the improvement of his off hand a priority. Wolf did the same thing late in his career before handing the baton to Guterding.
The two have been in touch this season, with Wolf reminding Guterding how it’s now his team, his time to shine.
Wolf is a model, and not just because he was an exceptional lefty who starred at Duke. He also went out at the pinnacle of the sport, with a championship celebration after his final college game. Guterding is three steps from duplicating the feat, but first comes the matter of reaching Foxborough.
Guterding and the Blue Devils already had one long bus ride home this season. They don’t want another this weekend.
“Especially after coach had been eight straight years, the moment our senior class steps on campus and we don’t go back, that’s just the motivation the guys on this team need,” Guterding said. “If we get there, it’s going to be new for all of us, and that is exciting. But you have to get there first.”