High Point lacrosse gets signature win over Duke

The Panthers knocked off the nation’s No. 2 team, surprising even coach Jon Torpey

High Point coach Jon Torpey, right, looks on as his Panthers charge onto the field after their 13-9 upset last Wednesday of No. 2 Duke at Koskinen Stadium in Durham. (Andy Mead / High Point Athletics)

Coach Jon Torpey stood emotionless on the sideline last Wednesday as his players rushed the field to celebrate the biggest win in the short history of the High Point lacrosse program — a 13-9 upset of second-ranked Duke.

It wasn’t as though he was trying to hide his feelings or play it cool. Truth be told, he was in a state of disbelief.

“People were like, ‘You were stoic,’ but I was more like I was in shock that the game was over and I was finally standing on a field with a group of guys that had the good fortune to win there,” Torpey said of his first win against the Blue Devils. “I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be around such great guys and fortunate to have coaches of top programs that will still play our guys and give us this opportunity.”

High Point junior attacker Ben Baker celebrates during the Panthers’ win over the second-ranked Blue Devils last Wednesday. Baker had three goals in High Point’s 13-7 win. (Andy Mead / High Point Athletics)

Torpey’s Panthers trailed 7-6 early in the fourth quarter before stunning the home team with six unanswered goals in a seven-minute stretch early in the period. They then relied on senior goalie Tim Troutner to hold Duke off and preserve the victory.

Although the Blue Devils are the highest-ranked team High Point has ever beaten in its seven-year lacrosse history, this isn’t its first win against a ranked opponent. The Panthers also beat No. 10 Virginia on Feb. 23, 2016.

What made this victory so special, Torpey said, is because of who it came against.

The former Ohio State defenseman called Duke the gold standard of college lacrosse because of its success on the field and leadership of coach John Danowski, who Torpey described as a mentor.

“Those guys do such a great job that I want to get as much information out of them as possible in terms of how they develop their players and what they do to harness their greatness,” the High Point coach said of his more established counterparts with the Blue Devils.

The relationship between Torpey and the Duke staff began with a trip to Durham early in his tenure to watch and learn as the Blue Devils prepared for a trip to the Final Four. Six years later, those lessons helped produce a victory the High Point coach wasn’t sure would ever happen.

“I’ve probably played Duke as much as if not more than any coach in the country and I played against them too, and I’d never once beat those guys,” said Torpey, who joked that he didn’t start feeling confident about winning until the final two seconds.

“I’ve been in a situation before where they’ll go off on a 10-goal run, because their ability to push transition with their athletes and the guys they put tight to the goal are exceptional.”

On this occasion, it was Torpey’s Panthers that strung together the decisive fourth-quarter spurt.

The key to the outburst was junior Davis Sampere’s ability to win faceoffs and maintain control of the ball for his team. Chris Young and Koby Russell each scored twice during the six-goal run while last year’s Southern Conference Player and Rookie of the Year Asher Nolting and Ben Baker added one goal apiece.

The Blue Devils tried to come back by scoring the next two goals, but the combination of Troutner in net and an insurance tally by Young allowed High Point to run out the clock without an abundance of drama.

It was a victory that was celebrated by a wild dog pile on the field and eventually, a smile or two from Torpey. But even though the Panthers aren’t scheduled to play again until Saturday against Drexel, the veteran coach began to move on from it as soon as the obligatory 24-hour rule expired.

He said it’s more important to keep working toward the goal of winning the Southern Conference and earning an NCAA Tournament bid than to risk losing focus over one early-season win. At the same time, he acknowledged that the upset of Duke was a significant event that could have a lasting impact on how his fledgling program is viewed nationally.

“For the people outside our locker room, it’s like, ‘Who are these guys, what’s their deal, what’s their story?’” Torpey said. “But I say it all the time: We’re not a team, we’re a program. We’re a group of guys that do a lot of things the right way.

“I’ve had people ask how’d you beat them? What did you do? And I say there’s a lot of work that goes into it. It’s the same approach every day for three or four years so that guys feel like they can do it without thinking. There’s so much stickwork, movement, ball spacing work and individual skill development, not the kind of thing normal people would want to put the time and effort into doing.”