When the clock finally struck zero after Mike Adler’s last-second save that sealed Duke’s 15-14 win over Syracuse in late March, the graduate transfer goalie jogged back to celebrate with the rest of the team.
He didn’t get far before Turner Uppgren offered a leaping hug.
Earlier this spring, Adler, who started at Saint Joseph’s from 2018-20, had asked Uppgren why the Blue Devils never “got their goalie,” the common practice where teams make a beeline to the keeper when the final whistle sounds.
“I honestly have no idea,” Uppgren told him. “It’s not because of you or anything like that.”
Uppgren took it upon himself to change that. What better time than after Adler’s epic stop?
“It was like the whole ‘Old School,’ we’re going streaking in the quad and I’m the only one running out there,” Uppgren recalled with a laugh.
The celebration represented more than just a joke considering Uppgren’s experience. It was a gesture of acceptance from the former starting goalie to the current starter, their shared unselfishness playing a substantial role in leading Duke to the NCAA semifinals in East Hartford, Conn. The second-seeded Blue Devils play third-seeded Maryland at 2:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2).
“He was in the toughest position and could have handled it the completely wrong way. … The only thing he cares about is one, the team plays well, and whoever is in goal plays well.” — Mike Adler on Turner Uppgren
Uppgren started seven of eight games in goal last spring and all 18 games during Duke’s final four run in 2019. He’s played 1,650 minutes and made 264 saves dating back to a 10-5 win over High Point on Feb. 10, 2017.
A 2015 graduate of Choate Rosemary Hall who redshirted his first year in Durham, Uppgren recently earned his MBA from the Fuqua School of Business, though the official conferral of degrees isn’t until tomorrow. Like midfielder Sean Lowrie, it’s Uppgren’s third degree from Duke.
“We got hopefully a couple more days of lacrosse and then I’ll enter the real world,” Uppgren said earlier this week. “Enjoying just being a full-time player right now.”
Duke’s roster is dotted with stories of players who’ve had to adopt different roles in this season unlike any other. Graduate transfer Phil Robertson, who scored 67 goals in 34 games at Princeton, now plies his trade as a man-up specialist. Sophomore Dyson Williams led the Blue Devils in scoring last year at attack, but bumped up to midfield.
Yet perhaps no position better personifies the Blue Devils’ selfless dynamic than goalie.
“I’m usually always joking around, so I’m not too serious, but the one thing that’s absolutely terrible about the goalie position in all sports is [only] one plays,” Adler said.
He knows the feeling. Adler got the starting nod for the season opener against Denver, but was pulled after he made three saves while allowing six goals. He’s not one for excuses, but Duke had no preseason scrimmages because of COVID-19 protocols. At that point, he was still getting up to speed on the nuances of the defense and clearing game. It was his first time playing at Koskinen Stadium too.
“I just didn’t feel 100-percent comfortable,” Adler admitted.
Uppgren made 11 saves and allowed only four goals in relief to help Duke secure a 12-10 comeback win.
“Today was my day and Mikey’s a great goalie and he makes me better on a daily basis,” he said after the game. “No doubt in my mind he’s going to bounce back from this.”
The roles reversed two days later against Robert Morris. After Uppgren struggled — allowing five goals and making only one stop — Adler stepped back in and made 11 saves with five goals allowed in 45 minutes of work.
A Florida native who you probably know by now survived a shark attack while surfing when he was 16 years old, Adler wasn’t freaked out by getting pulled against Denver. He called it the best thing that could have happened. It allowed him to take a step back and relax.
Back in high school at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.), Adler used to stick a Sour Patch Kid in one of his socks and eat it after he played an entire game. He’s dispensed with most of the superstitions. He said he plays his best when he’s present and not thinking about anything.
In many ways, Adler’s role has changed too since he arrived in Durham. A two-time captain at Saint Joseph’s, where he graduated ranked fifth all-time in career saves, this past year he has felt like a freshman again. The only things he’s had to worry about on the field are being a good teammate and stopping the ball.
Adler has started every game since Duke’s 17-8 win over Mercer on Feb. 13. He solidified his role and gained confidence after a 15-save performance in a 13-6 road win against Richmond in early March. He made 17 saves against North Carolina in a 12-11 overtime win and 16 saves against Virginia when Duke came out on top 13-12, also in overtime.
While Joe Robertson has accounted for three of the Blue Devils’ four OT winners this season, including the NCAA quarterfinal win over Loyola, Adler has also played his best in the most important moments. He has made game-saving stops in three of the overtime wins. The only exception was against the Greyhounds, as long-stick midfielder Tyler Carpenter caused a turnover to set up the game-clinching possession.
“We almost want the ball on our side in overtime,” Adler said. “We want to make that stop. That’s just the confidence we have.”
“The guys right now feel very comfortable playing in front of him and I think he feels as comfortable as he’s been all year playing with his new teammates,” Duke coach John Danowski said of Adler, who was named a USILA third-team All-American yesterday.
Uppgren has played a big role in that. Adler will be the first one to tell you.
“He was in the toughest position and could have handled it the completely wrong way,” Adler said. “The majority of people would have handled it the wrong way, myself included. The fact [is] that the only thing he cares about is one, the team plays well, and whoever is in goal plays well. Right now he’s doing everything in his power to help me out and get prepared.”