April 30, 2008

It's been more than two years since a scandal forced the cancellation of a season, terminated a coach's 16-year career and scarred the image of an entire school.

Yet the ramifications from March 13, 2006 have still not -- nor may they ever -- escaped the Duke lacrosse team.

After all, that's the only reason why last season's Tewaaraton Trophy winner, Matt Danowski, is back for a fifth season after the NCAA granted 33 Blue Devils an extra year of eligibility last June.

When Max Quinzani's last-second shot missed wide right against Johns Hopkins in last year's national championship game, he didn't know he'd get that last chance to do it all over again.

"Losing made it easier, but still the thought of getting a master's degree from a place like Duke University, it's something that you really can't turn down," Danowski, a fifth-year senior from Farmingdale, N.Y., said about his decision to return to Duke last fall. "But we still feel empty without that national championship. It still sits with me."

And though Danowski couldn't have performed much better than he did in 2007 -- when he led the nation in points (96) and assists (52) -- he wasn't satisfied with the way his career had ended that Memorial Day in front of 48,443 fans.

"I don't think it's a matter of how much better I can be," the All-America attack asserted. "It's a matter of how much better this team can be."

It was the second time in three years that Danowski had lost to Johns Hopkins, the first coming during his sophomore year before rape allegations surrounding an off-campus party cut short a junior campaign in which the Blue Devils began the season at No. 1.

Duke nearly reached that level last season as the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and looked to be the favorites to win it all after stunning undefeated Cornell in the semifinals on a buzzer-beating goal by leading scorer Zack Greer. But things didn't go the Blue Devils' way in the title game as they dug a hole against a talented Hopkins squad and couldn't recover.

"We just know so much more now," explained Tony McDevitt, an All-America defender who also returned for a fifth year and is pursuing a master's in business. "We've been through so much. A rollercoaster ride doesn't even describe the ups and downs of what it's been like."

Since the start of last season, though, it's been mostly ups for the Blue Devils, who overcame public scrutiny and ridicule not just from the media but also professors and classmates.

This season Duke is 15-1, having won its second straight ACC championship last weekend, and is back as the No. 1 team in the land.

Duke's successes on the field this season are not solely due to the return Danowski, McDevitt and three other fifth-year seniors, however. The Blue Devils brought in one of the nation's top recruiting classes to bolster their depth, and while there remains an on-going recruiting predicament to resolve over the next two years, everyday seems to present a new challenge for coach John Danowski (Matt's father) and his players.

"This is new to all of us and it's pretty bizarre," said the elder Danowski. "This year is different than last year, yet now there are these unique pressures that you have to face. The whole sequence of things is still very much out of whack. There is no blueprint for this."

It's been that way since the former Hofstra coach first arrived at Duke in July 2006 with a program on the verge of collapse. Danowski, nevertheless, has never let it get the best of him or his team, always making sure to accommodate the media and give all the credit to his players.

And when it came time for his son and his classmates to decide on playing a fifth season, the 2007 ACC Coach of the Year didn't pressure them into doing anything they didn't want to do.

Entering this season there was an understanding among the fifth-year seniors that this season wouldn't be exactly the same as last year's.

"Thinking it was your last year and being a senior, you definitely start thinking about your legacy and the journey," said McDevitt. "As much as you want to win a national championship, it's as much about the little steps you take. I experienced that a lot last year, so coming into this year it's awkward because do I relive it?"

For McDevitt and the other fifth-year seniors, it's that final chance to accomplish something that no lacrosse player at Duke has ever done before. Better yet, it's an opportunity to ease the pain that's lingered on from last year's disappointing finish in Baltimore.

"You only get a finite number of years to do it," McDevitt offered. "And that's what I try to pass along to the younger guys. Thirty years from now you don't want to regret anything. We got the rest of our lives to work."

Now, the Blue Devils have just one month left of work before it's all over, with no more excuses or second chances for not winning it all this time around.

"I feel lucky," Matt Danowski said. "A lot of this happened for a reason. I feel like I owed it to Duke to come back and be the best that I can be. Last year, there was so much pressure on us coming back for our senior season. This year, it's like I'm playing with house money."

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