A team that Duke University administrators considered disbanding a year ago has a shot at its first NCAA title this weekend at M&T Bank Stadium.

But men's lacrosse team members are playing for much more.

A year after now-discredited rape charges against three players tarnished the program's image, some team members seem to be trying to prove to the world that it was wrong about them.

They're playing not just for a championship, but also to settle a score.

"This is more than a game to these kids," said Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, whose son, Gibbs, is a sophomore attackman. "It really is about vindication, although it shouldn't have to be."

Sexual assault charges were dropped against three former team members last month after the state attorney general found that no attack occurred at an off-campus team party in March 2006, as an exotic dancer had alleged.

As they have all season, Duke players plan to wear the number during the final four of one of their once-indicted former teammates - David Evans, Collin [Please see DUKE, 8E] Finnerty and Reade Seligmann - on their "shooter shirts" during pre-game warmups to show solidarity.

Many players say they still feel the sting of seeing their former teammates charged and watching their 2006 season halted after eight games while Duke reviewed the program. The district attorney referred to team members as "hooligans" and campus demonstrators demanded justice for the alleged victim.

A faculty committee concluded that team members had a history of committing "socially irresponsible" acts while drinking, but that they were "academically and athletically responsible students." The program was reinstated in June 2006.

But some Duke players emerged from the trauma believing the story still didn't have a proper ending. The only way to turn it around was on the field.

"Unfinished business?" senior defenseman Tony McDevitt said after Duke's come-from-behind, 19-11 victory over North Carolina on Sunday earned it a spot in the final four. "You know what? Unfinished business is probably an understatement."

Brad Ross, a junior midfielder from Darnestown - one of seven Marylanders on the 41-man roster - said that he didn't think winning the title "could set it right for Reade or Collin or Dave anymore. But maybe there'd be a little vindication for the rest of the guys."

'Emotional situation'
Top-seeded Duke, which has won 11 straight games, will face undefeated Cornell tomorrow. If Duke wins, it will face the Johns Hopkins-Delaware winner in Monday's title game.

Parents and coaches have long been telling the team it has nothing to prove. Human nature being what it is, the message did not completely sink in. "It's an emotional situation on so many fronts for these guys," said Art Chase, Duke's sports information director.

John Walsh of Bethesda, whose son, Johnny, is a senior midfielder, said he has detected a will to win that goes beyond the usual competitiveness.

"I think it's an in-your-face type of thing," Walsh said. "It's 'everyone jumped all over us and said we were bad people.' They are human. They've been dragged across the coals."

Duke coach John Danowski said he told the players at the beginning of the season: "You don't owe anybody anything. You play lacrosse because you love to play, because you love each other, you love the university and that's it."

Danowski, who holds a master's degree in counseling, said this week that he hopes his players were listening.