In April 2006, Duke lacrosse player Collin Finnerty, looking pale and dazed, was marched into a wood-paneled North Carolina courtroom to be formally accused of raping an exotic dancer at a team party.

Two years later, Finnerty - vindicated along with two teammates - is proving there is life after the Duke lacrosse case, one of the nation's most infamous criminal prosecutions.

Seeking distance from the now-discredited case, Finnerty, 21, transferred last year to Loyola, where he is fervently trying to keep a low profile, according to those who know him.

But Loyola's schedule wouldn't completely allow Finnerty a fresh start or a respite from media attention, at least not yet. That's because yesterday Loyola played Duke, the school Finnerty departed with so many mixed emotions.

It was a game that Finnerty's coach, Charley Toomey, had predicted would contain "a lot of handshakes and maybe some tears," and he appeared to be right.

When it was over, Finnerty, who had traded his Blue Devils No. 13 jersey for No. 20 in white and green, stood on the wind-whipped field embracing and shaking hands with former teammates.

"He had been yakking with those [Duke] guys all week," said Kevin Finnerty, Collin's father. "I think all the adversity just brought them closer together.

"We're getting lots of hugs today from Duke parents and from the coach," said the elder Finnerty, who wore a Loyola cap to the game.

The high point for Collin Finnerty was scoring a goal, his third in four games. The low was watching his team get dominated, 21-8, by second-ranked Duke.

Duke coach John Danowski confessed to being "in some ways delighted that he [Collin] scored a goal. We're delighted to see that he's happy and healthy and is just a college kid again."

Finnerty landed at the Baltimore Jesuit school after two campus visits during which Toomey made him feel welcome and needed, according to Kevin Finnerty.

He posted a 3.0 grade point average last year, his family said, and is living with several teammates in a dormitory suite.

Promising start
For Finnerty, Duke will always have a sweet side. It's where he made his first college friends and played, though not as a starter, on a powerful team that lost to Johns Hopkins in the 2005 national title game. After rape charges were filed, his teammates honored Finnerty, David Evans and Reade Seligmann by wearing their numbers on their "shooter shirts" during warm-ups.

"We still text [message] Collin all the time and play NHL 2008 online with him," Duke senior Zack Greer said yesterday.

Yesterday, the Duke players showed their affection by needling Finnerty during the game. "You could hear them hooting and hollering, 'Where are you, 20? Where are you, 20?' " Toomey said.

Finnerty's nightmare began when a stripper alleged that she had been pulled into a bathroom and raped during an off-campus team party. The case collapsed, and Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong was disbarred for violating rules of professional conduct.

The resolution provided the Finnertys more relief than joy. The family will long remember the mock "Wanted" posters that appeared in 2006 featuring the faces of Duke lacrosse players. Or how demonstrators staked out the house where the party was held. Many lacrosse families felt mistreated and abandoned by Duke faculty and administrators.

Seligmann transferred to Brown, which doesn't play Duke in the regular season, and Evans graduated.

After those experiences, Finnerty, the most reserved of the defendants, understood that he would never completely escape the case.

"It's a huge part of all of our lives. There's no escaping it," Kevin Finnerty said.

But the Finnertys, from Garden City, N.Y., decided to do everything possible to provide Collin normality - at least as much as is possible. He received more than 100 well-wishing letters from strangers before the charges were dropped.

"We get numerous media requests and we, as a matter of course, turn them down," Finnerty's father said. "Collin is not spending time with the media, and that is the chosen course. He's had more media exposure than someone his age should have."

Finnerty's biography in the Loyola media guide makes no mention of the criminal case.

Seeking normality
The desire for normality led Finnerty to decline Loyola's offer to begin school last summer instead of in the fall. His studies had been interrupted because of the case, although he did take courses at Hofstra while on leave from Duke.

Finnerty decided to enroll in the fall because that was when most of his peers would be arriving. He has expressed interest in studying business. His father said Collin, along with Evans and Seligmann, are involved in establishing a foundation that will aid defendants wrongly accused. "There will be positive things that will come out of this," Kevin Finnerty said.

Toomey said the school will soon ask the NCAA for a ruling to ensure that Finnerty, who sat out the 2007 season while his case was investigated, receives an extra year of eligibility, allowing him to play three years for the Greyhounds. The NCAA had already granted one extra year of eligibility to Finnerty and the other 32 Duke lacrosse team members whose 2006 season was canceled in the wake of rape allegations.

Finnerty, a lanky, 6-foot-3 attackman, declined to be interviewed for this article.

After so many media interview requests about his criminal case, Toomey said Finnerty wants to talk about the same subjects as his Loyola teammates.

"He says, 'Let me go out and play a great game and then talk about lacrosse like everyone else,' " the coach said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com