The ambience surrounding yesterday's Duke lacrosse opener seemed so ... normal.

Boisterous students milled about, dressed in the school's trademark blue. Proud parents displayed buttons with their sons' uniform numbers. The packed stands erupted with cheers after Duke's first goal.

But the celebratory mood could not eclipse the defiance and sadness that linger a year after rape charges were leveled against three players, longtime coach Mike Pressler resigned and the 2006 season was abruptly canceled. Although Duke players called yesterday's 17-11 win over Dartmouth just another game, they understood it was not. "I think this will be the most emotional game we'll play all year," said senior co-captain Ed Douglas of Baltimore.

Reminders of last year's turmoil were low-key but abundant. One lacrosse parent wore a "Free the Duke Three" bumper sticker on her back. Another sported a "Fantastic Lies" button, alluding to the phrase one former player used to describe the criminal charges. Some students sported blue bracelets emblazoned with the word "Innocent!"

Duke's players left no doubt that they were standing by former teammates Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans, who were accused of assaulting an exotic dancer at an off-campus lacrosse party last March.

During pre-game drills, the attackmen wore Finnerty's number 13, the midfielders wore Seligmann's 45 and the defenders wore Evans' 6. The sleeves of their warm-up jerseys also bore a Latin phrase: "Succisa virescit," which can be translated as "Cut down, grow back stronger," an ode to resilience and regeneration.

And before the game, Duke players hung Finnerty's and Seligmann's jerseys in the locker room.

"We'll know something's not right as long as we see those jerseys without the guys we want in them," Douglas said.

"It's just such a big day that I can't even talk about it without tearing up," said Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, whose son Gibbs is a sophomore attackman. "This is the first time as a parent of four kids where I've gone to one of their games and not really had winning or losing on my mind."

Duke treated yesterday's game as a celebration. The players danced in their locker room beforehand and emerged from an inflatable tunnel with smoke billowing around them.

The pep band, a luxury usually reserved for basketball games, greeted them. The crowd of 6,485 was among the largest in the program's history. "That was probably one of the coolest experiences of my life, seeing all that support," said senior co-captain Matt Danowski.

But legal problems remain. Rape charges against Evans, Seligmann and Finnerty were dropped in December, but they remain charged with kidnapping and sexual offense. Though the case is under review, they might yet face a trial.

Evans graduated. Duke invited Finnerty and Seligmann to return, but they will not while the case is pending.

The case took on broader meaning for Durham because the players came from a largely white and economically privileged school, while the accuser is African-American and from a smaller commuter university. Despite that context, there were no signs of protest as Duke resumed play.

The game could not have seemed further away at North Carolina Central, the school attended by the dancer.

The campus is about three miles from Duke and was largely empty yesterday. Students asked about Duke lacrosse said they did not even know about the season opener.

"There are plenty of other things going on at Central," said Ashley Walker, a freshman from Durham. "We're trying to get our housing system changed. Our chancellor is leaving. People don't talk about the Duke situation anymore."

That was not the case when news of the charges emerged last year. Community leaders held a town hall meeting on N.C. Central's campus to discuss racial tensions around the situation.

"It was a big deal," Walker said. "It was really controversial, and I thought it was tragic. But then the facts of the case got twisted all around, and I was confused. I hope people don't blame the woman because I think she went through a trauma." Those who love Duke lacrosse take a different stance. They can't believe the case continues, given the dropped charges and the fact that prosecutor Michael Nifong recused himself and is accused of ethics violations.