Washington -- For Duke University men's lacrosse parents, this season's games are a little less meaningful, the tailgates a little more somber.
With three former players still accused of sexual assault, there are more solemn concerns than winning games.
"Let's have those three boys get exonerated. That's the only win that really matters," said Patricia Dowd of Northport, N.Y., whose son, Kyle, played for Duke last year but is not among the players charged.
A year after charges were filed, Duke parents are cautiously allowing themselves to believe they will soon get their wish.
With the North Carolina attorney general's office about to complete its investigation, parents say they have reason to expect that charges against Bethesda's David Evans and former teammates Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann will be dropped by prosecutors within the next few weeks. "That's what we've been hearing," said Sally Fogarty of Chevy Chase, whose son, Gibbs, is a sophomore Duke player.
As they ate sandwiches and drank Bloody Marys in a damp parking lot before the Blue Devils defeated Georgetown here Saturday, a handful of other Duke parents said they had heard much the same thing. Some of the parents' optimism comes from indications they've received from defense attorneys, and some from talking to players who have been interviewed by prosecutors.
The attorney general's office wouldn't discuss the direction of its investigation. "Our review of the case, including reviewing documents and conducting interviews, is continuing," Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said in an e-mail.
But Talley also said: "Yes, we expect the review to be completed in the next few weeks."
Fogarty and other parents were guarded about discussing what they're hearing because they don't want to seem presumptuous or antagonize the prosecutors. "It could make the special prosecutors feel bullied," said John Walsh of Bethesda, whose son, Johnny, is a senior on the team.
At the least, Duke parents said they can begin to visualize the end of a year some describe as "horrible" or "surreal." It's a period, they said, in which they have tried to keep their lives from being poisoned by their rage at a district attorney they believe brought an unwarranted case.
"You would go to cocktail parties and people would say, 'Well, something must have happened,' " said John Walsh, a health administrator. "And you're looking at these people and saying, 'C'mon, you know my son.' "
The charges were filed after a stripper -- a student at North Carolina Central University -- alleged that she was pulled into a bathroom and raped during a March 2006 party at an off-campus house rented by three lacrosse captains. The season was canceled after eight games, but the program was reinstated for this year.
Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong turned the case over to the attorney general's office in January and is defending himself against ethics complaints. Nifong earlier had dismissed rape charges but left others intact.
For the Georgetown game, the Duke parents wore school colors and sat on wooden bleachers on a raw, overcast day, shouting encouragement to their sons on the field.
The parents displayed an easy familiarity. One of the indicted players -- Evans, who graduated last year -- circulated at a pre-game tailgate, receiving hugs and well wishes. Evans, who had addressed the team before its March 2 game at Maryland, greeted his former teammates after the game Saturday. He declined to be interviewed.
Evans' parents also attended the game. Kevin Finnerty, whose son, Collin, would have been a junior if he had returned to school, didn't attend but called one of the parents to wish the team well.
While many of the parents were already friends, they say the events of the last year have brought them closer.
"You usually don't meet and make best friends at our age and we all have," said Bruce Thompson of Chevy Chase. Thompson is a government relations executive whose son, Bret, was a senior captain of the team last season.
At home games, parents often stay at the same hotel overlooking a golf course on Duke's campus, congregating frequently before and after games.
"Who else can you talk to about something like this?" Sally Fogarty said. "To go through something like this is just mind-blowing, especially the first few months when everyone was so fearful" about who would be charged, she said.
Fogarty's husband's auto dealership is raffling off a car to raise money for the defendants' legal defense.
"You can't equate what the rest of the parents have been through with what the Evanses and the Finnertys and the Seligmanns have been through," Sally Fogarty said.
Said Baltimore's Ed Douglas, a team co-captain: "They've really been through a lot, just as we have. And just as we have, they've leaned on each other."
News of the accuser's allegations broke in March, but charges weren't lodged until April and May. The period in between was particularly stressful, parents said. While there were some disputes and some frayed feelings, Thompson said: "Some people were worried this would all break apart and people would point fingers, but that didn't happen."
Many parents say they will be more relieved than joyous if charges are dropped. They say exonerating the defendants wouldn't undo harm already done.
"When somebody asks what is the effect of all this on the boys, I say it's too soon to tell," said Larry Lamade of Chevy Chase, whose son, Peter, is on this year's team.
"Only the individual who has faced indictment for a heinous crime he did not commit -- and suffered the hatred directed at him by those who did not choose to know the facts -- can tell you the deleterious effect it can have on him for the rest of his life," Lamade said.