Blue Devils lose championship game, gain perspective
BALTIMORE -- As Johns Hopkins' players ran around the field in M&T Bank Stadium, slapping high fives with fans and showing off the 2007 NCAA championship trophy they won by edging Duke 12-11, they passed the Blue Devils, who were marching in the opposite direction, two by two, toward the locker room.
Duke walked slowly, with senior Matt Danowski bringing up the rear. As the rest of the players disappeared into the tunnel, Danowski stopped, turned left and tossed his stick to William Portnoy, a 9-year-old with bone cancer.
Danowski then joined the rest of the Blue Devils in the locker room. This is a group that knows a little something about overcoming adversity. The 12-11 loss? It hurts, but it's nothing compared with the hardships this program endured over the past year. The loss, though, was the final piece of one of the strangest, most scrutinized seasons ever by a lacrosse team.
After having their season canceled midway through the 2006 season, the Blue Devils started over with a new coach and new rules. But the perceptions of the team, after three players -- Collin Finnerty, David Evans and Reade Seligmann -- were accused of sexual assault on an exotic dancer during a team party, lingered. Despite the charges being dropped and the accused being declared innocent by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper in April, the perceptions about the Duke program stayed.
Although the Blue Devils, who for all intents and purposes were playing in their second consecutive national title game, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and featured two of the best players in the country and a fast-paced attack that had everything but a catchy nickname, the focus always drifted back to the team's sordid past, not the promising future of the program.
"It's tough for you to understand because nobody else has gone through this and we're the only ones who will ever truly understand what this has been like," Danowski said. "It's like having three members of your family taken away, just taken from you, and then you lose something you worked your life for [when the season was canceled] and then all of a sudden, one day everything is supposed to be OK.
"Well, it wasn't. Words can't describe this. I don't have the vocabulary to do it. Maybe one day I'll look back in a few years when I'm working and struggling every day. Maybe then I'll be able to do it, but not now. It's just been an unbelievable year."
In so many ways.
The Blue Devils were a bounce or two from winning their first national title. Still, Duke tied an NCAA record with its 17 wins this season. The team posted a school-record 12-game winning streak. Zack Greer tied an NCAA record with 16 goals in this year's tournament. Danowski became the only player in NCAA history to have both a 50-goal, 40-assist season and a 40-goal, 50-assist season.
The Blue Devils accomplished all that while still doing community service, still doing well academically and, well, still being the Duke lacrosse program.
"I think we all know it's been a tough road for those kids and that program," said Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala. "And for them to deal with all the distractions they've had, to get to this game and battle back, I think they have shown why they are who they are and why their program is where it is today."
Where that program is is right among the very best in the country. Danowski said the Blue Devils were treated great by fans in the hotel and by people they came into contact with here. But outside here?
"Some people don't want to see us win," he acknowledged. "But I try not to worry about them."
Instead, he and the rest of the Blue Devils focus on each other. They take comfort in seeing former coach Mike Pressler. ("It was pretty tough emotionally," said senior Ed Douglas of Pressler's visit before the title game.) And though their attempt to win the national title for Pressler, Finnerty, Evans and Seligmann fell short, it's hard to say it wasn't a successful season.
Joe Wojciechowski is an NFL editor for ESPN.com.
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