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."
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.
"I've said this from the beginning: Winning or losing a game doesn't mean you're a good person or a bad person," the coach said. "In this particular case it would be easy to think that it does. But it's not how you perform on an athletic field for two hours."
Senior attackman Matt Danowski, the coach's son, said the players began the season trying to make a statement about who they were. "Maybe guys were putting too much pressure on themselves thinking a loss would be the end of the world," he said.
But he said he believes the team has settled down and is focused, as it should be, on its play.
McDevitt, who bore two parallel gashes near his temple after taking a knee to the head in Sunday's game, recalled that Duke players were in limbo this time a year ago. As the committee prepared its recommendations on whether to reinstate the team, McDevitt and 11 other rising seniors tried to keep the underclassmen and recruits from abandoning Duke.
"We understand if you don't want to get involved in this situation because it is a little chaotic," McDevitt recalled telling recruits by phone. "But I want to let you know that if you do [attend], it'll be the greatest decision of your life."
Four recruits changed their minds after the rape charges and were released from their commitments by Duke. But nobody on the team transferred, and that was a key, players said, to this season's success.
"I think we realized at the darkest hours of last spring that we could really trust one another, that we could lean on one another," said Ed Douglas, a team co-captain for whom the final four is a homecoming because he attended Baltimore's Gilman School. "I think that was borne out in the fact that no one transferred. I think that really brought us closer together."
Advancing to Baltimore is a milestone for Danowski, who never made it to the final four during 21 seasons coaching at Hofstra.
Danowski was hired after Mike Pressler resigned under pressure after the rape charges became public and after a player joked in an e-mail about killing strippers - a reference to a movie, American Psycho.
Do it for 'Coach P'
Many of the players have said since that they made a mistake in holding a party at which strippers were hired. Some say their bad judgment cost Pressler, who had been at Duke 16 years, his job.
"There's no doubt about it, this is bittersweet for Coach P," McDevitt said. "We're still his team; everybody in the locker room will say that. We're going on with Coach Danowski with Coach Pressler in mind."
Pressler is now coaching at Bryant University in Rhode Island, and some of the Duke lacrosse parents traveled there to watch his first game. Pressler, who declined to be interviewed, has said he is proud his players kept the team together after everything that occurred.
The elder Danowski acknowledged it took time for Duke to gel given the turmoil, distractions and the instinct to try - perhaps too hard - to prove it was a good team. Although the criminal case is over, its aftermath rages on in the form of campus debate over whether faculty members and the media rushed to judgment against the players.
Two years ago, Duke advanced to the title game before losing to Johns Hopkins. McDevitt said it's hard to know how this final four will unfold.
"We talked in the beginning of the season about normalcy, trying to get things back to normal," he said. "And it was never normal. It still isn't normal."
Three-day tickets for $55 and $65 remain. Single-day tickets are $30 for Saturday, $30 for Sunday, and $25 for Monday.
Call 410-261-RAVE or go online to lax4baltimore.org.