Duke close to 1st NCAA lacrosse title

May 27, 2008 12:49:05 PM PDT
Dan Loftus has seen the good and bad of Duke lacrosse. The best may be just a few days away. Two more wins and the top-seeded Blue Devils will have their first NCAA championship and, perhaps, closure for players who saw three teammates falsely accused of rape.

"It's like a full circle," Loftus, a Duke goalie since 2004, said Friday. "We went from being 5-8 our freshman year to being in the national championship game twice to not even having a whole season to being back here."

The Blue Devils (18-1) face fifth-seeded Johns Hopkins (10-5), the team that beat them in the 2005 and 2007 title games by one goal each time, in Saturday's second semifinal. Second-seeded Virginia (14-3) meets third-seeded Syracuse (14-2) in the first.

Duke was 6-2 in 2006 when the rest of its season was canceled in the wake of rape allegations by a woman who was hired to perform as a stripper at a team party. Coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign. State prosecutors eventually determined that an attack never occurred and the charges against the players were dropped.

Under new coach John Danowski, the Blue Devils won their first four games last season and finished 17-3. A championship this season would break the 16-year stretch in which Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, Virginia and Princeton have won all the titles.

"I don't think the kids need it for validation. It does bring maybe some closure to a period of their life that was very painful," Danowski said.

Last year's narrow loss in the title game just added to the pain.

But just two days later, the NCAA granted a fifth year of eligibility to players who were not seniors on the 2006 team. Five of them will suit up Saturday -- Loftus, 2007 national player of the year Matt Danowski, Tony McDevitt, Nick O'Hara and Michael Ward.

"Last year there was so much more pressure on the guys to go out there and win a championship because it would be a storybook ending," said Danowski, the coach's son and this season's NCAA leader in points. "This year it's much more comfortable. Guys are much more relaxed. ... We don't have to play to prove anybody wrong."

Might a championship show that the Blue Devils are all the way back from the tumultuous events that hit the program.

"We think we've been back since we stepped on the field last year against Dartmouth" in the season opener, Matt Danowski said.

Duke won its first eight games this season before losing to Georgetown 11-7. It won its next two then dominated Johns Hopkins 17-6 on April 5. It was the fifth straight loss for the Blue Jays. They are 7-0 since then.

"That Hopkins team is not even close to the team they are now," Matt Danowski said. "They've gotten so much better throughout the season."

But a Hopkins team that was 3-5 before its surge in the second half of the season must deal with a very speedy Duke team that features Zack Greer, who leads the nation with 64 goals.

"We've got the biggest challenge of anybody right now in the country," Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala said. "But that's OK. We're here and everybody said we wouldn't be."

Syracuse seemed like an unlikely participant after it went 5-8 last year, a blot on a rich tradition that has produced nine NCAA championships.

The Orangemen also had off-field problems. Two players were suspended after being arrested for disorderly conduct one month after another player was charged with assaulting a male student and suspended for the first two games of the season.

"We all just refocused and rededicated ourselves," said Mike Leveille, one of five finalists for the Tewaaraton Trophy given to the national player of the year. "We decided we weren't going to let what happened last year happen again."

Duke also hopes things will change. That would mean, finally, a win over Johns Hopkins in the Final Four that would put the Blue Devils in the title game for the third time in four years -- missing only when their season was canceled.

"If you want to be the champion, it's probably appropriate that you play the defending champion," John Danowski said. And the canceled 2006 season could provide extra incentive, though Loftus says there's a bigger factor.

"There's more of a motivation just to play a good team like Hopkins and beat them than to show the world," he said. "I think last year we were playing with a kind of a chip on our shoulder and I don't know if we were playing for the right reason.

"But I think this year we're playing for the right reason. It's more just to have fun."


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