`A sense of urgency'

After a year of scandal, Duke approaches the 2007 season with what new co-captain Ed Douglas (right) of Baltimore says is ...

Ncaa Men's Preview -- Lacrosse

February 16, 2007|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

DURHAM, N.C. -- As they walked off the Koskinen Stadium field, Duke's lacrosse players couldn't have known they had just played their last game of the 2006 season.

It was March 21 and the Blue Devils were disappointed at losing to Cornell. But the season was barely a month old. At 6-2, Duke was still an elite team eager to try to return to the national championship game it had lost by one goal to Johns Hopkins the year before.

And then it was over.

On Feb. 24, the Blue Devils will play their first game since sexual assault allegations abruptly ended the team's season and rocked the campus.

The unexpected ending left players frustrated, even bitter. But co-captain Ed Douglas of Baltimore said it also gave them an appreciation for their sport - a sense they had better cherish the present because the future isn't guaranteed.

"There's certainly extra motivation," said Douglas, a Gilman graduate and one of 35 returning players. "I think there is a sense of urgency because everyone sort of understands this is an amazing privilege that can unfortunately be taken away."

The sexual assault case took a toll on the team. Four recruits asked out of their commitments and were released by the university after news broke that an exotic dancer claimed she was raped at an off-campus lacrosse party March 13. Charges against Bethesda's David Evans, who graduated in May, and undergraduates Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann, who have not returned to the team, are pending.

While they are bound not to talk about specifics of the case, team members aren't shy about proclaiming their former teammates' innocence. Douglas said he and other players have proposed a way to subtly honor the three defendants before each game. "The way it works is that Collin is an attacker, Reade is a midfielder and Dave is a defenseman so their corresponding units will wear a shooter shirt with that kid's number on the back," Douglas said.

It all could have been worse for the Blue Devils. With the lacrosse program's future in limbo, there were doubts last spring whether the team's core would return. As it turned out, not a single player transferred.

That means Duke returns a formidable attack led by co-captain and national Player of the Year candidate Matt Danowski of Farmingdale, N.Y., and Zack Greer of Whitby, Ontario. Competition for the other spot includes highly touted freshman Max Quinzani of Duxbury, Mass.

There are six Marylanders on the team, including Douglas, a midfielder who didn't play as a freshman and remains eligible as a first-year graduate student.

Duke is ranked fourth by Lacrosse magazine and eighth in the preseason Nike/Inside Lacrosse men's Division I media poll. Defending national champion Virginia is first in both.

"Maybe as the season goes along lacrosse will be the story," said first-year coach John Danowski, the co-captain's father. "Would these 35 kids who are currently in the program love to go back in time and change things? Absolutely. But they can't. They've been steeled by experience."

Danowski, who has a master's degree in counseling, said he has tried to simplify things for his players. Don't worry about things you can't control, he tells them. Just play.

Danowski was hired from Hofstra after Mike Pressler resigned under the weight of the sexual assault case. The case prompted Duke to examine the lacrosse program, which it decided to retain only after accepting new standards of behavior drafted by the players.

"They had been successful with the old coach," Danowski said. "They were 17-3 two years ago with two one-goal losses to Hopkins and then last year they were 6-2. So now you've got a new coach coming with maybe some new ideas and are the guys going to buy in? And that remains to be seen. I say that humbly and I'm alright with that."

Duke enters the season uncertain what sort of reception it will receive from fans. Its first road game is at Maryland on March 2.

"The nature of college athletics and pro sports is that there is a heckling dynamic," Douglas said. "So I think in some sense we need to expect it."

Duke players described feeling stigmatized after the story broke last season. Questions were raised on campus whether athletes have been coddled and why Duke's neighbors complained about wild parties at the house where the party was held.

But the climate has shifted as the case against the defendants has seemed to unravel. The campus has seemed to embrace the team.

"I think the best thing they can do to help in the healing is just to be themselves," Danowski said of the players. "They should do as well as they can in school and engage in the classroom, and people will see them as bright and funny and articulate and interested."

Last year, Douglas said it was emotionally trying for him to watch the final four without Duke in it. "Some people watched the games and thought `It should be us,' " Douglas said.

This year, the midfielder knows the final four is in his hometown of Baltimore, and he'd very much like to be in it.

"Hopefully it'll be a little homecoming," he said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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