Last friday in NewYork City a young man boarded Amtrak's 7 p.m. Acela Express, which was loadedwith fans who, like him, were traveling to Baltimore for the NCAA men'slacrosse Final Four. He took a seat across from two old friends, cracked open aBud Light and blithely chatted about what typically interests guys in their20s--jobs, mutual acquaintances, girls--seemingly oblivious to the stares hewas getting from a few of the other passengers. The young man politely declinedto talk with a reporter who happened to be sitting across the aisle from him(his Wall Street employer, the young man intimated, forbids him from doing so),but the T-shirt he wore provided comment enough. Printed in bold, block lettersacross the right breast were two words: DUKE ¬†LACROSSE. The young man wasDavid Evans, one of the three former Blue Devils players accused--and laterexonerated--of rape and other offenses against an exotic dancer at a team partylast March.
That Evans,24--whose square jaw and mop-top haircut are recognizable to anyone who saw hisimpassioned assertion of his and his teammates' innocence in news clips lastspring ("You have all been told some fantastic lies," he saidthen)--can now proudly and publicly wear his old Duke gear speaks to thereversal of the team's fortunes in one year's time. On Memorial Day 2006 theBlue Devils watched from home as Virginia beat UMass to win the nationalchampionship in Philadelphia; Duke's 6--2 start, No. 2 ranking and shot at theNCAA title, which had eluded them in a loss to Johns Hopkins in the 2005 final,had all been erased nine weeks earlier, when university officials shut down theprogram in the midst of a criminal investigation.
This Memorial Dayweekend, in front of record crowds totaling 146,003 at Baltimore's M&T BankStadium--including Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, the three whowere cleared of all charges by North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper inApril, plus former coach Mike Pressler--Duke made it all the way back to thenational title game. But as current coach John Danowski said afterward,"This isn't Hollywood. There are no storybook endings for these kids."Third-ranked Hopkins wrote its own finish, and the Blue Devils bowed again indramatic fashion to the Blue Jays, 12--11, on Monday.
What had driventop-seeded Duke to 12 straight wins en route to the final was a kinetic,explosive attack--Matt Danowski (96 points) and Zack Greer (94), two of theBlue Devils' four first-team All-Americas, ranked one-two in the nation inpoints this season--combined with a near impenetrable fortitude and unityforged during the months of off-field turmoil. "They went through somethingthat really bound them together," said Hopkins senior attackman Jake Byrne,a former teammate of Evans's and four current Duke players at the Landon Schooloutside Washington, D.C., who had a game-high four goals in the championship."You can see that in the results they produce."
The Blue Devils'12--11 semifinal triumph over undefeated Cornell was a classic. Eight straightDuke goals turned a 3--2 deficit into a 10--3 advantage with three minutes leftin the third quarter. But the Big Red, which boasted the nation's top-scoringoffense (14.2 goals per game), answered with an 8--1 run that tied the gamewith 17 seconds left. With the Blue Devils' championship dreams on the line,Danowski thought of his former teammates. (Evans graduated last year, andFinnerty and Seligmann are transferring.) "I was dying, dead-tired, but Ilooked up into the crowd at Reade and Dave, the guys who couldn't play,"says Danowski, the son of the Duke coach. "They were a source of motivationfor everybody." The Blue Devils won the ensuing face-off, and Greer scoredthe winner at the :03 mark, his school-record 16th of the postseason.
"Saturday'sgame was such an emotional high, and maybe we came into Monday expecting towin," Duke senior midfielder Ed Douglas would say after the championshipgame. "Then we got hit in the mouth." As dominant as Hopkins was in thefirst half on Monday--the Blue Jays outshot the Blue Devils 27--12, won 12 of16 face-offs (including the first nine) and slowed the pace of the game totheir liking--Duke was unmistakably flat. Only an 8--3 winner over upstartDelaware in the other semifinal on Saturday, Hopkins had clear shooting lanesand took a 10--4 lead into the locker room at intermission.
Duke needed tosteel itself one more time, and, indeed, the Blue Devils came out energized inthe third quarter. With Greer and Danowski all but shut down by the Hopkinsdefense--they would finish with one goal and two assists between them--Dukemidfielders Ned Crotty, Peter Lamade and Brad Ross led the charge that producedfive unanswered goals in the third quarter and closed the gap to 10--9.Finally, with 4:37 to play, freshman attackman Max Quinzani tipped a pass fromdefenseman Nick O'Hara into the goal to bring the Blue Devils even at 11.
Unfortunately forDuke, Douglas would say later, "the hole we dug ourselves was a foot toodeep." With 3:25 left Hopkins attack Kevin Huntley beat his defender andscored the go-ahead goal. Duke's desperate attempts to force overtime--Hopkinsgoalie Jesse Schwartzman, who was named the tournament's Most OutstandingPlayer for the second time in three years, blocked a shot by Ross with eightseconds left for one of his 15 saves, and Quinzani's last-second laser skippedjust wide of the right post--went for naught.
As the Blue Jaysrushed together in celebration, Danowski knelt to the ground, his face in hishands. He had taken one of the two Duke shots that hit the pipes--missing agoal by inches--in the fourth quarter. "We just didn't get it done," hesaid later in the locker room, his eye black smudged from his tears.
With that, the BlueDevils' season of redemption was complete--not in total triumph as they haddreamed, but more whole than they could have imagined a year ago, when theywondered if they would ever play for Duke again. Now they look forward to theday when the words Duke lacrosse simply conjure images of achampionship-caliber team. "It probably won't happen for me, but it'llhappen for guys in the future," Matt Danowski said. "After a lacrossegame they'll just have to answer questions about lacrosse."
Judging by thelarge number of boys and girls wearing Duke lax gear as they walked aroundBaltimore's Inner Harbor, sticks in hand--and by the thousands who cheered theBlue Devils at M&T Bank Stadium--that vision might be closer to realitythan the Duke players could have imagined a year ago. "It's about wins andlosses this weekend," said Seligmann on Saturday as he proudly, if a bitwistfully, watched his former team while seated six rows behind its bench."That's how it should be."
More acton shots from the NCAA men's lacrossechampionship game.
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