DURHAM, N.C. – Men's lacrosse – the game, not the scandal – made an emotional and triumphant return to Duke University on Saturday.
After a traumatic, abbreviated 2006 season, which ended after eight games following an off-campus party that led to rape charges against three players and cost 16-year coach Mike Pressler his job, many are wondering if the Blue Devils can rise again and chase an NCAA title.
Duke overcame a shaky start to beat Dartmouth 17-11 in its highly anticipated season opener. Judging by the circumstances and hoopla surrounding the game, it was easy to understand the Blue Devils' nervousness.
"Well, first, it's a relief for this to be over," first-year Duke coach John Danowski said. "I could feel it in my body. I could feel it in the muscles in my legs. Certainly the amount of emotion that has been carried forward for everyone, it has been tremendous. The amount of positive energy that was flowing in this locker room was really indescribable."
The past 11 months, of course, has been described in vivid detail. During that time, the lacrosse program was engulfed in scandal stemming from an alcohol-soaked team party March 13. Racial slurs allegedly were exchanged and an African-American stripper originally claimed that she had been raped and sodomized by three white players in a bathroom.
The resulting explosion overwhelmed a prestigious university and this city, sweeping both into the national spotlight and leaving a swath of destruction that could take years to sift through. The debate on the role of race, power and entitlement continues, though it clearly has changed course over the past several months. This much remains certain: The firing of Pressler, the filing of rape and assault charges against three white team members and the suspension and later cancellation of the 2006 season nearly leveled a program that had played in the NCAA title game against Johns Hopkins a year earlier.
Saturday's game was an important step in the recovery process as the Blue Devils found their rhythm and rallied from an early 3-1 deficit. Zack Greer paced the winners with six goals and two assists, while National Player of the Year candidate Matt Danowski – the coach's son – added three goals and four assists.
"[Emotion] kind of got the best of me in the first quarter," Danowski said. "I think I kind of got carried away by it. I was just so wound up, finally back out there again, trying to make plays, the crowd was here. I kind of had to take myself out of that and settle down."
Another important step in the recovery process was taken earlier in the day in Smithfield, R.I., where Pressler landed as the head coach at Division II Bryant University. Pressler's debut was solid but not successful as the Bulldogs fell 6-5 to Adelphi University. Duke senior Tony McDevitt admitted that Pressler was on his mind.
"I probably will hear from him tonight, and we will talk," McDevitt said. "I feel bad that he lost, but he will get those guys on track and I am sure he's happy for us. Absolutely."
Duke fans certainly were happy for their team. Although Duke doesn't charge admission or sell tickets for lacrosse games, fans wedged into 6,500-seat Koskinen Stadium on a brilliantly sunny but chilly North Carolina winter afternoon.
More than 60 reporters covered the nationally televised game, far more than the few local beat writers who normally follow the Blue Devils. The remote television trucks that camped on campus during the early weeks of the scandal also returned, but this time to detail a celebration and not criminal reports.
Concerns about how the lacrosse team would be received by students and the curious proved unnecessary. School officials had sent an email earlier in the week requesting that students be on their best behavior. Duke also called for heightened security, though protesters stayed away.
Players emerged from the bottom floor of the Murray Athletic building adjacent to the field two hours prior to the game, then sprinted onto the turf through an inflatable tunnel and past smoke machines for the opening whistle. They were greeted by a standing ovation as they met and jumped around near midfield. "We have sort of been preparing all week for the type of distractions we have today," senior midfielder Ed Douglas said. "There were certainly many, from the media, from the great crowd we had. Running out of the tunnel with smoke, all sorts of distractions. I thought the guys focused very well. You could sense there was excitement in the locker room before we ran out. I think that showed itself in some of the mistakes we made but also in the spirit of play we had."
Those in attendance saw three numbers on Duke's warmup shirts: 6, 45, 13 – the numbers worn by former players David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. Charges against the trio in the sexual assault case are pending.
Each current player sported a number corresponding to his position – Evans played defense, Seligmann midfield and Finnerty was an attack man for Duke in 2006. Senior Peter Lamade developed the idea for the pregame tribute and the rest of the team supported it. The jerseys of Seligmann and Finnerty also were hung in the locker room. Evans graduated in May.
The Dartmouth Big Green, of course, knew it faced a difficult task.
"With the season opener I thought both teams were pretty hyped up – them especially since it was their first game in a while," Dartmouth defender Tim McVeigh said. "I knew they would be so hyped up that they would be throwing the ball, maybe making some mistakes just on pure adrenaline. Once they calmed down, they seemed to get in the flow of the game, and they really started to put it together."
John Danowski, who was hired July 21 after spending 21 years at Hofstra, has a master's degree in counseling. Called "Coach Dino" by his players, Danowski has tried to simplify things for his players, stressing the need simply to play and not worry about things out of their control. He also has displayed a somewhat different coaching style than Pressler. Whereas Pressler was known by many as a disciplinarian on the field, Danowski has embraced a softer side.
While fans were not allowed to bring signs into the stadium, Duke had installed signs on the fence lining the field with the Latin phrase, "succisa virescit" – the motto for The Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., where Seligmann and three current Blue Devils went to high school. Adopted by the Duke lacrosse program in the preseason, it means: "When cut down, it grows back stronger."
Duke entered ranked fourth by Lacrosse Magazine and eighth in the preseason Nike/Inside Lacrosse men's Division I media poll. Defending national champion and Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia is first in both. Duke's first road game is at Maryland on Friday.
The Blue Devils are home Sunday against Denver.
Don Yaeger is the author of 12 books and a former Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated.