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Last friday in New York City a young man boarded Amtrak's 7 p.m. Acela Express, which was loaded with fans who, like him, were traveling to Baltimore for the NCAA men's lacrosse Final Four. He took a seat across from two old friends, cracked open a Bud Light and blithely chatted about what typically interests guys in their 20s--jobs, mutual acquaintances, girls--seemingly oblivious to the stares he was getting from a few of the other passengers. The young man politely declined to 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 letters across the right breast were two words: DUKE �LACROSSE. The young man was David Evans, one of the three former Blue Devils players accused--and later exonerated--of rape and other offenses against an exotic dancer at a team party last March.
That Evans, 24--whose square jaw and mop-top haircut are recognizable to anyone who saw his impassioned assertion of his and his teammates' innocence in news clips last spring ("You have all been told some fantastic lies," he said then)--can now proudly and publicly wear his old Duke gear speaks to the reversal of the team's fortunes in one year's time. On Memorial Day 2006 the Blue Devils watched from home as Virginia beat UMass to win the national championship in Philadelphia; Duke's 6--2 start, No. 2 ranking and shot at the NCAA 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 the program in the midst of a criminal investigation.
This Memorial Day weekend, in front of record crowds totaling 146,003 at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium--including Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, the three who were cleared of all charges by North Carolina attorney general Roy Cooper in April, plus former coach Mike Pressler-- Duke made it all the way back to the national 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 in dramatic fashion to the Blue Jays, 12--11, on Monday.
What had driven top-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 the Blue Devils' four first-team All-Americas, ranked one-two in the nation in points this season--combined with a near impenetrable fortitude and unity forged during the months of off-field turmoil. "They went through something that really bound them together," said Hopkins senior attackman Jake Byrne, a former teammate of Evans's and four current Duke players at the Landon School outside 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 straight Duke goals turned a 3--2 deficit into a 10--3 advantage with three minutes left in the third quarter. But the Big Red, which boasted the nation's top-scoring offense (14.2 goals per game), answered with an 8--1 run that tied the game with 17 seconds left. With the Blue Devils' championship dreams on the line, Danowski thought of his former teammates. ( Evans graduated last year, and Finnerty and Seligmann are transferring.) "I was dying, dead-tired, but I looked 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 motivation for everybody." The Blue Devils won the ensuing face-off, and Greer scored the winner at the :03 mark, his school-record 16th of the postseason.
"Saturday's game was such an emotional high, and maybe we came into Monday expecting to win," Duke senior midfielder Ed Douglas would say after the championship game. "Then we got hit in the mouth." As dominant as Hopkins was in the first half on Monday--the Blue Jays outshot the Blue Devils 27--12, won 12 of 16 face-offs (including the first nine) and slowed the pace of the game to their liking-- Duke was unmistakably flat. Only an 8--3 winner over upstart Delaware in the other semifinal on Saturday, Hopkins had clear shooting lanes and took a 10--4 lead into the locker room at intermission.
Duke needed to steel itself one more time, and, indeed, the Blue Devils came out energized in the third quarter. With Greer and Danowski all but shut down by the Hopkins defense--they would finish with one goal and two assists between them-- Duke midfielders Ned Crotty, Peter Lamade and Brad Ross led the charge that produced five 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 from defenseman Nick O'Hara into the goal to bring the Blue Devils even at 11.
Unfortunately for Duke, Douglas would say later, "the hole we dug ourselves was a foot too deep." With 3:25 left Hopkins attack Kevin Huntley beat his defender and scored the go-ahead goal. Duke's desperate attempts to force overtime--Hopkins goalie Jesse Schwartzman, who was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for the second time in three years, blocked a shot by Ross with eight seconds left for one of his 15 saves, and Quinzani's last-second laser skipped just wide of the right post--went for naught.
As the Blue Jays rushed together in celebration, Danowski knelt to the ground, his face in his hands. He had taken one of the two Duke shots that hit the pipes--missing a goal by inches--in the fourth quarter. "We just didn't get it done," he said later in the locker room, his eye black smudged from his tears.
With that, the Blue Devils' season of redemption was complete--not in total triumph as they had dreamed, but more whole than they could have imagined a year ago, when they wondered if they would ever play for Duke again. Now they look forward to the day when the words Duke lacrosse simply conjure images of a championship-caliber team. "It probably won't happen for me, but it'll happen for guys in the future," Matt Danowski said. "After a lacrosse game they'll just have to answer questions about lacrosse."