March 17, 2021

Aiming to Take Care of Some Unfinished Business, PU Alum Robertson Thriving for Duke Men’s Lax

LAX BROS: Phillip Robertson, right, stands at attention alongside his younger brother, Joe, before the start of Duke University men’s lacrosse game earlier this season. Former Princeton star Robertson is currently playing for Duke lax as a grad student on a fifth year of eligibility resulting from the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Attackman Robertson has tallied five goals and two assists to help No. 2 Duke get off to an 8-0 start. (Photo provided by Duke’s Office of Athletic Communications)

By Bill Alden

Phillip Robertson was part of something special last year with the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team.

Starring as a senior attackman, Robertson helped the Tigers get off to a 5-0 start and rise to No. 3 in the national rankings.

“We had a great senior class, we were extremely close,” said Robertson.

“As summer went on and going into the start of last year, we really tried as a group to buy in. We wanted to change things around. We had an extremely close-knit team our freshman year and we wanted to get that same kind of feel back.”

Just as Princeton was feeling like it could do some really special things in 2020, the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I remember going into the locker room, it was just really sad,” said Robertson, who tallied 13 goals in 2020 and ended his Princeton career with 67 goals and three assists.

“As the senior class, we knew that was probably it. We sent out the message that if the worst thing that ever happened in our lives was that our season got canceled, we have lived pretty blessed lives.”

This spring, Robertson is feeling blessed as he is taking care of some unfinished business, joining the Duke University men’s lacrosse team for a fifth year of eligibility resulting from the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the pandemic, getting to play with younger brother, Joe, a senior standout for the Blue Devils, and former Tiger teammate Michael Sowers.

As he considered his options last spring, Robertson entered the transfer portal and then reached out to legendary Duke head coach John Danowski and his son, Blue Devil assistant coach Matt Danowski.

“I talked with both of them; it was great calls both times,” recalled Robertson, a 5’7, 175-pound native of Salem, Va. who graduated from Princeton last June.

“I am fortunate that they offered me the opportunity to come to Duke. I felt like it would be a good fit. From there, I started to look into the masters programs and I decided to do a Master of Management Studies in the Fuqua School of Business. It is a one-year program.”

Having spent some time around Duke with his younger brother, Robertson had a good familiarity with the school and the lax program.

“I think I had a good sense but I hadn’t experienced it,” said Robertson.

“My brother and I are extremely close, we would talk before every game. Whether Duke was playing a game or Princeton was playing a game, we would usually hop on the phone for a few minutes and just talk about what we are thinking. I helped move him in his freshman and sophomore year. I also went to visit him. I had met some of the guys in his class. I had hung out a little bit with the team.”

Being reunited with Sowers, who took the same route joining the Duke squad for his fifth year of eligibility and enrolling in the Master of Management Studies program, was a big help for Robertson.

“It was great having both of us down here because we are so tight,” said Robertson, who lives in a house with his brother, Sowers, and two other seniors on the team.

“He is the closest thing besides a natural brother that I have. Having him down here is great. As we got adjusted, we would bounce things off of each other and think back to our time at Princeton. It has been nice having someone with that shared experience. It has been a lot of fun.”

The pair of Princeton standouts have helped No. 2 Duke get off to an 8-0 start with Robertson notching five goals and two assists and Sowers tallying 44 points on 18 goals and 26 assists as he nears 350 points in his career after setting the Princeton all-time record with 301.

“We have a great group of guys in the locker room, everyone is really bought in,” said Robertson.

“It has been a lot of fun, especially coming in as a new player, getting to know everybody and learning how everyone plays. It was figuring that out from the lacrosse side of it but also getting to know them outside of lacrosse and spending time with them. There is an incredible amount of depth on this team; everyone is very talented. Everyone is really hardworking and they are going full speed all of the time.”

It didn’t take Robertson long to get up to speed as Duke opened the season by edging Denver 12-10 on February 5.

“Mike and I were driving over together and when we got to the locker room, we were just sitting there laughing,” said Robertson

“We said we have been here before, we got this but the two of us were anxious to get out there and start playing again. If I said my heart wasn’t beating a million miles when I ran out there, I would be lying. I was definitely a little nervous when I ran out there. It was surreal to be back on the field after a few minutes of running around, you settle in so it was great.”

Two days later, Robertson notched first tally for the Blue Devils to help Duke defeat Robert Morris 16-12.

“The first goal down here came from Michael and it felt pretty fitting,” said Robertson.

“After the game, when I saw him, I said as soon as I saw his head turn I knew the ball was coming for me so I tried to be ready to catch it and shoot it in there. I didn’t know it went in until I heard Michael running up to me.”

Another fitting moment came against Mercer on February 13 when Robertson’s brother, Joe, returned to action after being sidelined last season due to a leg injury.

“That was the first time we have been on the field together since May of 2016 in high school,” said Robertson.

“We got out there and we were just flying around and having a good time. Right before the game started we gave each other a hug and said this is what we came here to do. It was a really cool experience.”

Coming off the bench for the Blue Devils, Robertson is looking to make the most of his time on the field.

“I am really trying to do whatever needs to be done, that is my mentality,” said Robertson.

“At Princeton, I had a pretty defined role in terms of the majority of the time I was on the receiving end of Michael’s passes. I played inside whereas here the coaches want everyone to be an all-around lacrosse player. I have been playing every role on attack, not just playing inside. I am going behind the net, trying to be a better feeder and a dodger. My role is trying to be the best player that I can be and get a little better each day.”

Having never gotten the chance to play in the NCAA tournament during their years at Princeton, Robertson and Sowers are primed to help Duke make a deep run in this year’s national tourney. 

“We felt like we were on our way there last year and we were really excited about it,” said Robertson.

“Mike thought about it all the time, I know I thought about it all of the time. We talked about it and unfortunately we weren’t able to do it last year. We haven’t forgotten. We have never been there before and it is definitely something that is still very much on our minds. Our goal is to be playing on the last day of the season in May.”

No matter what happens in May, Robertson considers his season at Duke as a bonus after not getting to close the deal at Princeton.

“The experience at Princeton for all of the seniors was cut short but the silver lining out of it is that I got the opportunity to come down here and play an extra year of lacrosse,” said Robertson.

“It is the sport I love but to also to be with an incredible group of guys and to be able to play with Mike and with my brother has been special.”