- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. — Tony McDevitt was looking around Duke’s school store just before Christmas, trying like so many others to finish up some holiday shopping.

It was an ordinary trip. But then an employee spotted McDevitt’s Duke lacrosse sweatpants, a sure sign the defenseman was a member of the once-embattled team that had its season short-circuited by rape accusations last spring.

There were no cursive glances, no awkward exchanges. Instead, the most apparent thing was just how much support the Blue Devils enjoy nearly a year after enduring a tumultuous investigation.

“We’re all out of your T-shirts,” the storekeeper said.

Consider it just another step in Duke’s lacrosse saga, which included a midseason suspension of the program, a coaching change and more attention for the team than anyone in the tight-knit sport could have fathomed.

It has led up to tomorrow’s season opener against Dartmouth, in what is expected to attract perhaps the largest crowd in 6,500-seat Koskinen Stadium’s history. The spotlight, so searing last year, is again on the Blue Devils.

And Duke lacrosse is moving on.

“I think in a very real sense, it’s the start of a new chapter,” senior midfielder Ed Douglas said. “We’re been writing the preface in a way during the preseason, but this is our opportunity to come out and show what we’re about as lacrosse players. … The opportunity to just play again, just to enjoy the game, is going to be nice.”

The new normal

The Blue Devils were not strangers to attention, though much of it came from a run to the 2005 NCAA title game and their coronation as the preseason favorite last year. Almost all of it emanated from the rabid-though-small lacrosse community.

Then came an exotic dancer’s rape accusations stemming from a house party last March. First a game was canceled, then another two and finally the season. Coach Mike Pressler resigned under pressure, and charges were eventually brought against David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann.

The players’ idyllic lives were suddenly harsh. Their photos were plastered everywhere and district attorney Mike Nifong worked to secure indictments, though no one was sure who would be accused or if the program would survive.

“You were sort of living on two rails there, one preparing for the worst and the other hoping you would get this opportunity back,” Douglas said.

Lacrosse went on, as Virginia raced through a perfect season and won the title so many once assumed the Blue Devils would claim.

Some at Duke just wanted to get away. Others, like attackman Matt Danowski, paid attention to the NCAA tournament to follow friends and family. And there was McDevitt, who escaped to the New Jersey shore on Memorial Day weekend but still saw some of the semifinals on TV as they were played in his hometown of Philadelphia.

“It hurt my stomach,” McDevitt said. “Even my freshman year when we didn’t make it, it was tough to watch. I have a competitive spirit. I was sitting there kind of grinding my teeth and my muscles are tensing up. It was more like putting myself through pain, so I didn’t really watch the final.”

Slowly, the Blue Devils achieved some stability. The program was reinstated and John Danowski, Matt’s father and the longtime coach at Hofstra, was hired to take over the program. The rape case against Evans, Finnerty and Seligmann crumbled, although sexual offense and kidnapping charges are still pending.

And suddenly, a new season arrived. Duke went through fall practice and began preseason workouts in late January. In so many ways, it’s downright normal. In others, it’s displaced just enough from the past to notice.

“For us, I don’t think there will ever be a full return to normalcy,” Douglas said. “We’re operating under some different standards now in terms of the way we have to be aware of who’s around us and just the way things are interpreted in the media. Coach Danowski has stressed that we need to be able to overcome any obstacle this year, be it on the field or off the field.”

Together again

On a balmy afternoon last week, the Blue Devils shuffled through another practice. A weekend scrimmage was looming, and the season opener just 10 days away. Through it all, John Danowski cajoled his group while taking verbal notes on his team’s ability to clear and create turnovers, praise mixed with a few wry remarks.

Nothing seemed out of place for an early-season college lacrosse workout.

“They’re extremely consistent,” Danowski said. “I’ve been on the lookout for it, and I haven’t seen any irregular or some kind of strange behavior or moodiness or something that would be off-kilter. I haven’t noticed that from the first day. They have been fun and pleasant and hard-working and compliant.”

All 35 players who remained after last season are still on the roster, and the only two obvious absences are Finnerty and Seligmann, who have been reinstated by Duke but are not taking classes at the school (Evans graduated last May). Their former teammates long for the day they can return in a comfortable manner, but take solace in how everyone stuck together.

“That is the one thing I can take away from the whole situation and say look, this is what we’re about,” McDevitt said. “We all love each other, we all care about each other and we all want to accomplish the goal of winning a national championship.”

It won’t be easy, not with trips to Maryland, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins dotting a schedule also featuring a visit from Virginia. But first come two games this weekend and the frenzy sure to accompany them.

“I think everyone sort of dreams of the day when we can just talk about how the game went and not the underlying legal and social ramifications of our presence,” Douglas said. “[But] we understand that those are important issues that are going to be talked about.”

Added Matt Danowski: “Hopefully, we get to a point when you guys just ask us about lacrosse. We don’t know when that will come. The first step is Saturday. The second step is Sunday. On Monday, maybe people will just ask about lacrosse.”

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