DURHAM, N.C. — There was about four minutes left in the first game of Air Force’s men’s lacrosse season. The Falcons were on the road, battling the No. 5 Duke Blue Devils on a chilly and cloudy day at Koskinen Stadium, and the game was tied.
Air Force was outmatched. It was the underdog. This game — televised by the ACC Network — was supposed to be a comfortable win for Duke, a confidence-building start on the path to the Blue Devils’ third-straight Final Four berth. However, Quincy Peene had other plans.
The 6-foot-4 sophomore from Ridgewood, New Jersey corralled a pass to the left of Duke’s cage. He sprinted by the first Blue Devil to try and stop him. When he reached the top of the arc to cut inside, two more Duke defenders appeared. Peene stopped in his tracks and whipped a mid-range shot that sliced between the two defenders and into the bottom right corner of the goal. For the first time Saturday, Air Force had the lead, and Duke was panicking.
In front of an announced crowd of 1,311 fans, Air Force began its 2020 campaign with a victory, upsetting the mighty Duke Blue Devils 14-13.
“Proud of the guys. They’ve been working pretty hard since the beginning of the season,” second-year Air Force head coach Bill Wilson told Against All Enemies after the game. “I think going into the game we were absolutely underdogs... Our offense, luckily, executed and stepped up and today we won that way. In the future, we’ll have to challenge our defense and keep teams to single digits.”
Air Force clinched the victory with 47.6 seconds to play when freshman Brandon Dodd easily scored on open net. In a moment of desperation and with the shot clock against them, the Blue Devils had pulled their goalkeeper in an attempt to force an Air Force turnover. Duke got one goal back with seven seconds to play, but couldn’t muster up another score between then and the final buzzer.
Dodd, playing in the first game of his collegiate career, led Air Force in scoring with four goals and four assists. The 6-foot-3 Logan, Utah native spent last season playing at the USAF Academy Prep School. On Saturday, he was one of several newcomers to shine. Freshman attack Ethan Grandolfo also got on the scoreboard.
The Falcons leading scorers from a season ago, Trey Lervick and Matthew Schwartz, were held scoreless by the Duke defense.
“We have a lot of young guys that were on the field today, but we also have some veterans who made them feel comfortable with good communication,” Wilson said. “We’re proud of our older guys for leading the way and our younger guys for just playing hard.”
Air Force wasn’t always in a position to secure an improbable victory. Midway through the first period, they trailed the Blue Devils by five goals. Air Force didn’t get on the scoreboard until there was five minutes left in the opening quarter, with Dodd feeding Peene for the first Falcons’ goal of the day.
By halftime, Peene had tallied three of his four goals, but Air Force still trailed 9-5.
Still, the unit remained resilient.
“We just wanted to make sure we were playing hard, playing full speed, not giving them any easy goals,” Wilson said. “I think when we got out there, our guys were a young group. We haven’t started all of those players, especially on the defensive end in the past. Those guys have to get their bearings and feel comfortable. Maybe their intensity level was a little too high.”
Air Force scored three straight goals to open the third period, and then outscored Duke 5-2 in the fourth quarter to seal the victory.
For Wilson, the Air Force’s offensive outburst was important, but he was most impressed by how his defense played in the second half and how well junior goalkeeper Branden Host performed under pressure.
“We’re really proud of him,” Wilson said of Host. “He’s been rock solid for us. Can’t wait to see the lacrosse in front of him because the sky is the limit.”
Host finished the day with 17 saves, which is good enough to tie the second-best mark in his career. A 6-foot-1 native of Aurora, Colorado, Host was arguably the best goalkeeper in Division I men’s lacrosse last season, leading the nation with a goals-allowed per-game average of 7.74. He was voted a team captain this season as a junior, which is no easy task at the Academy.
Although Air Force returns home for its next game on Feb. 8, its schedule doesn’t get any easier as they’ll face No. 9 Denver. But the Falcons proved Saturday that they’ll be able to play with anyone thrown their way this season.
“Our players feel like we can win every game on our schedule,” Wilson said. “I think they feel like, if we play together, if we play Air Force brand lacrosse, then we can compete with anybody.”