The pressure on the Duke men's lacrosse team keeps growing.
The Blue Devils are the top seed in the NCAA tournament and face No. 5 seed and defending national champion Johns Hopkins in the final four tomorrow in Foxborough, Mass. In addition, Duke was No. 1 most of the season and lost just one game, more than two months ago.
Finally, there's the NCAA's controversial decision last May to grant an extra year of eligibility to 33 team members after much of their 2006 season was canceled in the wake of rape allegations against three players - charges that were eventually dismissed.
Maybe that's why Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said the pressure is not on his Blue Jays (10-5) but is instead on the Blue Devils (18-1).
"We are the underdogs," he said. "Duke's the team that's supposed to win this thing by media and outside opinion."
Since the NCAA's decision, Duke - seeking the school's first national title - has been transformed from hunter to hunted.
Although just five of the 13 seniors from last season's squad elected to return for a fifth year, Internet forums and message boards have been littered with posters bemoaning a potential national championship for the Durham, N.C., school. The five who returned are among the top lacrosse players in the country.
In a thread titled "Down with Duke" in a forum hosted by Inside Lacrosse, one reader wrote: "Is anyone else out there puking at the thought of a Duke championship? ... [W]hat about every other current NCAA senior this year who has to watch the Devils highlight film each week? Don't they deserve a fair shot at the title?"
Another reader was more concise, writing, "ABD - Anybody But Duke."
If the Blue Devils are upset about the vitriol, they're not validating it.
"There's anti-Duke sentiment for everything, especially for basketball and the university itself," said senior attackman Matt Danowski, who broke the NCAA career points record in his fifth season. "We're not really too worried about that. Obviously, people don't agree with the fact that we have a fifth year, but people don't seem to speak about [former Duke midfielder] Peter Lamade at Virginia and his fifth year and other fifth-year guys who play elsewhere. I'm sure we're not the only fifth-year guys in the country."
The Blue Devils figure to be the favorite against Johns Hopkins tomorrow and either No. 2 seed Virginia (14-3) or No. 3 seed Syracuse (14-2) in the championship game Monday at 1 p.m.
But if Duke was to win two more games, some have suggested applying an asterisk next to the team's name to note the NCAA's decision. ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich scoffed at that notion.
"Putting an asterisk next to their name is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life," said Kessenich, a two-time first-team All-America goalkeeper for Johns Hopkins.
Defenseman Tony McDevitt, who - like goalie Dan Loftus, defenseman Nick O'Hara and midfielder Michael Ward - returned for a fifth year, said he and his teammates have not given much consideration to that possibility.
"We sort of just take that mantra of moving on and not really worrying about what other people say," McDevitt said. "The only comment I would have on it is I would ask the critics or the people who are saying things like that to think back to two years ago when we weren't able to go to Philadelphia [for the NCAA championship] and we all thought we had a pretty good team that year."
Coach John Danowski made a similar plea, arguing that the players can never regain that lost season.
"Whatever side of the fence you stand on, for what they went through, I don't think anybody would want to go through that to get an extra year of being able to play lacrosse," he said. "Does it make it complete? No, but perhaps some of these kids come to closure about a very painful and difficult time of their lives."