When Max Quinzani and the Duke men's lacrosse team walked out to their first practice of the season, they did not have to sprint from the locker room along a path flanked by TV cameras and notebooks. News trucks no longer sit in the parking lot, and players can walk freely without having microphones shoved in their faces.
That's life when your school distances itself from controversies of the past three years. It's a welcome change of pace for the No. 14 Blue Devils, who play No. 8 Maryland in the second game of the Konica Minolta Face-Off Classic at M&T; Bank Stadium tomorrow.
"The fanfare around Durham has calmed down considerably," said Quinzani, a junior attackman. "It's nice. We can just go out and have practice and have fun and tell jokes and at the same time work hard."
By the same token, Duke has not been ranked highly by various media sources after bidding farewell to a couple of NCAA record-setters and one of the most prolific offenses in recent memory, which sent the team to an 18-2 record and a berth in an NCAA tournament semifinal. The Blue Devils have already lost to an unranked Harvard squad.
That setback, however, hasn't diminished expectations within the program.
"In no way do we look at this as a rebuilding year or a year when we're trying to figure stuff out," senior Ned Crotty said. "We always want to go as far as we possibly can, and that means [the Final Four on] Memorial Day weekend. Just because people have graduated and certain guys have left, we're not trying to take a year off. We want to be in the national championship game."
Although the Blue Devils played for a national title in 2005 and 2007, reaching that stage this season might be tougher. Attackman Matt Danowski, the NCAA record holder for career points, and a pair of three-year starters, defenseman Tony McDevitt and goalie Dan Loftus, graduated. Attackman Zack Greer, who set an NCAA record for most goals in a season, transferred to Bryant, and attackman Josh Coveleski decided to spend his fifth year of eligibility at Delaware.
"We had the team of the century," sophomore defenseman Mike Manley acknowledged. "But we still have expectations. ... We actually kind of like where we're at, what we're doing. We know what we have. We know who comes out to practice for our team."
As painful as those losses are, the climate around the team is no longer polarized. There's no more discussion of the 2006 season, which was canceled in the wake of rape allegations against three players. (Charges were eventually dismissed.) The NCAA's controversial decision in May 2007 to grant an extra year of eligibility to 33 team members seems like a distant memory.
"It's great," coach John Danowski said. "Now, all we talk about is X's and O's and personnel and opponents. It's really been refreshing."
Free from the distractions, Danowski and the players can concentrate on retooling a new attack unit that is acclimating Crotty, a former midfielder, and junior Will McKee, a transfer from St. Lawrence.
An experienced defense can continue to work on clearing the ball from its half of the field and find cohesion with first-year starting goalkeeper Rob Schroeder.
And the team can concentrate on correcting the problems that led to the three-goal loss to Harvard.
But for those who think the defeat is the first sign of the program's decline, pardon the Blue Devils for thinking otherwise.
"We knew this year was going to be different," Quinzani said. "We're going to get punched in the mouth in some games, and that's what happened on Sunday. We're fine with it, and we're going to learn from our mistakes. We finished practice, we watched film, and we're going to work on our weaknesses. We've got a lot more weaknesses this year, but we're not afraid to address them."
NO. 4 JOHNS HOPKINS (1-0)
VS. NO. 19 PRINCETON (1-0)
NO. 14 DUKE (2-1)
VS. NO. 8 MARYLAND (2-1)
Tomorrow, 2:30 p.m.
M&T; Bank Stadium
Tickets: 410-261-7283, ticketmaster.com, faceoffclassic.com