In Part III of our conversation with Kevin Cassese we focused on the nitty-gritty of next year. He talked about scheduling the season, the naming of the new head coach John Danowski, and what the expectations are for Duke men’s lacrosse in 2007.
Playing a full lacrosse season, something that looked seemed like a longshot back in April, seems all but concretely certain for Duke next year. Recruits have been locked in, players are returning, but a few more things need finalizing. Kevin Cassese has been working tirelessly to align these final elements. When he is not chasing players, or playing his own games, he talks to Duke administration about the coaching search, or he calls up other coaches and tries to hammer out a schedule.
There is quite a bit for Cassese to be looking forward to. With his team returning a lot of its key players and adding some fresh talent, there is no reason Duke cannot be highly competitive next year. Duke’s schedule looks to be intriquing, as Cassese has had to hunt for some games, and may have stumbled into some pretty good ones—he mentioned the possibility of a Duke vs. Syracuse game, which we both thought looked like “a pretty sexy match-up.” As the public opinion of his Duke team has slowly grown more favorable, there are fewer concerns about hostility carrying over into next season.
Perhaps the faster Duke can charge ahead, the lighter the weight on their shoulders will feel.
Have there been problems scheduling next season? Are any teams shying away from playing you? Are most other teams far enough along in their scheduling that it is difficult to coordinate things with other coaches?
Everybody’s been open to talking to me about it. It hasn’t been an issue yet. It seems like all the schools, they want Duke on their schedule for playoff power rankings and that stuff. The problem I am running into at some schools is, we’re so late in the game the other schools have their schedules filled already. It’s been tough to try and find schools that don’t have a full schedule, don’t have a full slate of contests for next year. So that’s what I’ve been doing, talking to different coaches out on the circuit, trying to figure out who has openings, who doesn’t. For the most part, there are only a couple of dates I’m trying to fill, and I think we’ll do that in the next week or so, so I think we’ll be alright.
How many games are you shooting for?
You’re allowed 17 contests for the entire school year, calendar year. We do one tournament in the fall, which counts as one, and then I try to do 16 contests in the spring, and two of those would be scrimmages—basically 14 games, and then a fall tournament and two scrimmages.
Is there a little bit of nervousness around travel next season? When you guys play away, or even home, people might say some pretty ugly things to the team? Have you tried to prepare them for that?
I don’t think you really have to prepare them for it. I don’t think there is nervousness. Everybody we’ve talked to we’ve gotten comments above and beyond what’s normal. People have said that our guys are great people; they’re very nice, they’re very polite, they have great manners, and they’re great on the road. Unless we give them some reason to not like us, I don’t know why people would treat us any differently.
At the end of the day, it’s just sort of how you interact with people. If you interact with them how you should, if you treat people the way you want to be treated, it will be reciprocated. I really don’t envision any problems. I can’t see people thinking that way. Like I said earlier, the public opinion has really turned, and I think people are in support of our guys more than they ever were, and I think we’re going to continue to see that.
What is the team most looking forward to?
I think just getting out there and getting back to work. That was what the general consensus is with all the players. Everyone wants to get back out there and start focusing on the goals that we have set for ourselves: getting back to playing good lacrosse, getting back to the ACC tournament, getting back to the NCAA tournament, and hopefully trying to reach our goal of getting back to the Final Four. Having all those goals set last year, we thought they were very realistic goals to achieve, and the not being able to do it, just makes us all the more hungry to step on the field this coming spring.
Is there anything that you and the team are a little apprehensive about next year?
I don’t think so. It’s just a matter of getting everybody back. That’s really the main focus. We’re concentrated on the guys we have coming in, adding them to our family, and making it a great home for them, and then sort of finding a new identity. Every year you have new players in and you lose some great people. We did that last year as much as any other year. As much as you have the core of the group coming back, there are still new faces that need to assimilate into the group. There’s still a new team chemistry that needs to be formed. In our sport, that’s what you really use the fall for. When we get to the spring we look to have a good team bond and showing it on the field as well as off the field.
How much pressure is on you to make a successful, responsible, well-behaved team, especially with how intently people will be watching to see if you can do just that?
I think as a coach on the Division I level whether it’s lacrosse or any sport, there’s always pressure on you to have a team that first and foremost is well behaved off the field, that are good citizens as well as good people. I think first and foremost we are in the business of education, and that’s part of the education process. I don’t really look at it as pressure. I look at it as a challenge. That’s why we are in this business of coaching and education. You take the challenge to try and help aid 40 to 45 guys or 47 guys, into becoming great people. When you have great people out there and guys that are working hard together and believing in each other, that’s when you have a great team. I think that’s really the main focus.
Has the whole “lacrosse culture” thing been blown way out of proportion? Drinking and partying and making the occasional stupid decision are parts of college for everyone, and yet you guys have been portrayed as so out of the norm and wholly reckless.
Exactly, and I think it’s just because college athletes are more visible, and that’s just my honest opinion. Throw in the party scene and the culture of not even just lacrosse but college athletics, and the social scene that comes with it, and that stigma. I think that’s a part of college campus life, whether you play lacrosse or you play soccer or you’re in the chess club. If you’re a student I think that’s a part of college life, and I really think it’s just part of being an athlete on a college campus. You’re put in the spotlight more, and that’s something we have to work with our athletes on and just make sure they understand the privilege of playing a college sport comes with those circumstances, and you’ve got to be able to handle it the right way. Like I said, again, it’s part of the education process, and we are going to do our best to make sure all of our guys know that. Duke is going to do their best to make sure all of their student athletes know that.
When you have the program where you want it, when people hear Duke lacrosse, what do you want them to think?
Initially, I think you just want to see a team that’s hungry. That’s very hungry to get back to work, that’s very hungry to get back on the field, to play hard, and to prove to everybody that we’re stronger and more united from everything that we just had. I think that’s really want the main goal is for everyone involved. We’re going to have a chip on our shoulder; we already do. We’re ready to come out and prove to everybody that we have a strong bond, and that we’re ready to keep pressing forward and trying to reach our goals.
Do you worry you might feel a lot older than 26 by this time next year?
Definitely. I think I am right now. What I’ve received in the last month, month and half, from being named the interim coach is an absolute crash course in how to be a Division I head coach in lacrosse. It’s been an unbelievable experience for me. It’s been a lot of work, not a lot of sleep, and doing a lot of research, talking to a lot of people, and getting a lot of help in the process. For me it’s been just an invaluable experience. I’ve really learned what goes into being a Division I lacrosse coach at the highest level. I think I can really use that, and it’s going to help me in my career, and it’s a great experience.
Coach Danowski has now been named the head coach at Duke. Do you think he will be a good fit for the team and the school? Why? What does he bring to Duke lacrosse?
Coach Danowski is a great fit for Duke University and the men's lacrosse program. He is a great coach and an even better man, and I look forward to working with him as we begin the new era of Duke Lacrosse. He is extremely well respected in the lacrosse community, and he is a familiar face for many of our current players which should help make for a smoother transition than your typical coaching changes. The Duke Lacrosse Family understands the need to focus on the future, and we feel very confident that the future will be bright with John Danowski leading the charge.
Have you ever worked with coach Danowski before, either coaching with him or playing with him? Do you think you two will click well together on the sideline?
I am familiar with Coach Danowski because we both have Long Island ties and he actually recruited me a little bit coming out of high school. I had many opportunities to watch his Hofstra teams play over the years and during that process I gained a lot of respect for his coaching philosophy. I have no doubt that we will work very well together both on and off the field. The bottom line is that we both feel very strongly about Duke University and Duke Lacrosse and we will work tirelessly together to ensure these kids have a tremendous experience in their Blue Devil careers.
Were you disappointed to not get the job yourself? Do you think it worked out better for Duke to have an experienced coach like Danowski take over the team?
My goal was to put myself in position to remain "A" coach at Duke University, not "THE" coach at Duke University. For me, it was never about becoming the head coach... It was about working as hard as I could to make sure there was some sense of stability around the Duke Lacrosse Program. I love everything about Duke Lacrosse, and I am excited about the opportunity to remain as an assistant coach and work for a quality man in John Danowski.
With a head coach officially named, and with you doing most of the set-up work this summer, does Duke feel ready to move ahead into the academic year and the spring season?
We can't wait until the players return towards the end of August. It is going to be an exciting time when we get together for the first time as the 2006-07 Duke Lacrosse Team.