- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

BALTIMORE — They have endured a 14-month stretch that brought both more misery than any of them could have guessed and the great rewards that temerity and togetherness can deliver.

They have worked through a season in the spotlight, the blazing glare of cameras and relatively large crowds never far away from a group that remained tight in the face of false rape accusations last year.

No matter what, though, the Duke lacrosse team’s decidedly unique experience will be over by late Monday afternoon.

Between a meeting with Cornell in this afternoon’s NCAA semifinals at M&T; Bank Stadium and a possible Memorial Day appearance in the title game, the top-seeded Blue Devils (16-2) still have plenty in front of them. However, today still begins the final chapter of Duke’s unusual, emotional journey.

“I think it’s actually partially like a sense of relief,” senior defenseman Casey Carroll said. “We’ve been through so much, and to know it’s going to be over, we’ve really done it right. To be able to finish here with no stone left unturned, that was our goal.”

Just making it to the final four is an accomplishment for this bunch, which at this time last year didn’t know whether they even would have a team after their season was canceled and David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann faced multiple indictments after an exotic dancer accused them of rape.

Things gradually turned in the Blue Devils’ favor, from the reinstatement of the program to the hiring of new coach John Danowski to the resumption of practice in the fall. All along, there was plenty of attention paid to the first workout, first game and first road trip of lacrosse’s most recognizable team.

By the time the remaining charges were dropped last month, Duke already was entrenched near the top of the rankings.

“It has been a wild ride at times, but I don’t think it’s all set in yet,” senior midfielder Ed Douglas said. “It’s something we’ll have to reflect on in a couple years and realize how special the season was. At this moment, I know every one in the locker room is focused on lacrosse and winning [today] and hopefully on Monday.”

Duke has known nothing but winning since its last meeting with Cornell, a 7-6 home loss on March 20. In the last two months, an underrated defense and an offense powered by stars Matt Danowski (42 goals, 49 assists) and Zack Greer (63 goals, 25 assists) have propelled Duke to its second final four in three years.

Like everything else that has happened since last spring, they have done it together — all 34 players eligible to return for Duke came back this season.

“The biggest thing from the past 14 months is that we’ve grown stronger as friends and brothers and the Duke lacrosse family,” Greer said. “Back in the beginning, we were the only people that stuck together. You really learn who your friends are.”

The Blue Devils probably will have their share of support among the crowd. The team arrived in Baltimore on Thursday, then practiced at the stadium yesterday to prepare for the fourth-seeded Big Red (15-0).

It’s a game fans have salivated about since the NCAA tournament was announced nearly three weeks ago. For the Blue Devils, who had a potentially deep postseason run taken away last year, it means even more.

“It’s such an anticipation for us, and we’ve been waiting so long for it,” Matt Danowski said. “We just want to get out there and play.”

Even if it does mean the end. Matt Danowski said he maintained a day-by-day outlook this week, an approach that served him and his teammates well when uncertainty permeated every aspect of the program.

Still, it’s difficult to lose sight of a larger significance as the Blue Devils’ season winds to a conclusion.

“As a senior class, as we were leaving Durham, we sort of felt that whenever we come back, it’s over,” Douglas said. “I think the sense of finality hits you a little bit. We’re just excited to be here, and we’re going to enjoy this weekend and hopefully make it last as long as possible.”

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