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.

"I just can't believe anybody still thinks anything bad happened," Fogarty said.

Her husband owns a Chevrolet dealership, and they are raffling a fully loaded sport utility vehicle to help the three families with legal expenses. She considers such loyalty the Duke way.

"Not one of these kids left after last season," she said. "They stood by each other, loyal and proud."

Duke's lacrosse parents greeted each other like old friends yesterday. They have bonded via phone and e-mail over a harrowing year of trying to defend their sons' reputations. The first game brought jubilation but also sympathy for the Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans families.

"It's important that everyone know we are very, very sad that Reade and Collin and Dave are not here to be a part of coming back," said Ed Douglas' mother, Cornie.

"It's bittersweet," said Maureen Mayer of Great Falls, Va., whose son, Kevin, is a junior on the team. "We're sad for the three families that are still suffering, but we're so happy that the boys can get back on the field and do what they love."

Duke first-year head coach John Danowski, Matt's father, met with the parents before the game. He talked lacrosse, explaining that his team would try to push tempo against Dartmouth's ball-control offense. But he also told them that the families of the charged players were with them in spirit. He plans to hold similar meetings before every game, symbols of his belief that the program is a family.

"He's very attuned to the special needs of this program and this team," Mayer said.

Students also shared strong feelings about the past year.

Freshman Hannah Owen wore a Duke lacrosse T-shirt with the words "witch hunt" across the front. She was a high school senior looking forward to matriculating when the controversy erupted last year.

"Everyone gave me a hard time, but from the beginning, I didn't want to judge them," she said.

Owen quickly bought one of the "Innocent!" bracelets, which also had the numbers of the charged players. She has worn it ever since. She hoped yesterday's game would be the last burst of hysteria around the program.

"It is just a lacrosse game, and I know they want to be able to play it as just a lacrosse game," she said.

"I think most students think it's ridiculous that it's been dragged on for so long," said Owen's friend, Hannah Craddock. "We want Duke lacrosse to go back to being about lacrosse. We're tired of hearing about everything else."

childs.walker@baltsun.com