Local News

Duke Lacrosse Program Turns Attention to Future

Posted April 11, 2007 8:57 p.m. EDT
Updated April 12, 2007 12:19 a.m. EDT

— For more than a year, Duke lacrosse meant scandal - not sport.

Now that the sexual assault case against three former players has collapsed, Blue Devils co-captain Matt Danowski hopes the focus eventually will shift back to the field.

"The aftermath is going to linger on. It's not going to go away - people are not going to stop talking about it," Danowski said Wednesday night. "But Duke University speaks for itself, and Duke lacrosse will in time speak for itself, and this is something that eventually will be a bruise but nothing more than that.

"It will not define this program, just like it will not define" the players, he added.

The Blue Devils have been the focus on intense scrutiny since last March, when the team threw an off-campus party that featured underage drinking and a pair of strippers. One of the women, a student at nearby North Carolina Central University, would later tell police she was raped by three men in a bathroom.

In the days that followed, tales of boorish behavior by the lacrosse team would emerge, including underage drinking and public urination. The school canceled the team's season after a particularly nasty e-mail became public, and coach Mike Pressler was forced to resign. Later, three players - Collin Finnerty, Reade Seligmann and David Evans - were charged with rape, kidnapping and sexual assault.

The defense admitted the players' behavior at the party had its faults, but never wavered in their insistence the players were innocent of the criminal allegations. On Wednesday, prosecutors agreed - vindicating the solid support of their former teammates.

"We're not here to revel or to gloat or anything else, but to just to accept the news as it is and move forward," said coach John Danowski, Matt's father. "To see the relief in their eyes was most gratifying for myself - that was what was important today, and that's what was important for the Duke lacrosse family."

The news capped a whirlwind few hours for the Blue Devils. The players weren't sure what was going to happen with the case until their coach sent a text message informing them of Attorney General Roy Cooper's announcement, co-captain Ed Douglas said.

The players learned the charges would be dropped while they were on a bus to a Raleigh hotel, where a press conference for the vindicated players was being held.

"Finally, it was happening," Matt Danowski said. "From what we thought, it should have been over Day 1. But there were so many curveballs, so much going on that you never knew what actually was going to happen. It was a relief and a collective deep breath."

The current players shared smiles and hugs with their once-accused teammates, with the younger Danowski even teasing Finnerty that he should return to practice later that night with the team.

"We had an opportunity to talk to the three guys behind the curtain, and it showed the emotion of the day, that there's a lot of relief that this case is in some respects, behind us," Douglas said. "Obviously ... there's an aftermath. But just the opportunity to move forward is really special."

Pressler has since surfaced at tiny Bryant University in Rhode Island while John Danowski left Hofstra to replace him as Duke's coach.

"I trusted my son to (Pressler), to his care, and trusted him very much, and it was very painful for a lot of us today to know that through the series of vindication, a good man is not here," John Danowski said. "Ironically, I'm here in his place. Certainly I can say that I struggle with that, often, to know that I'm here because of this unique set of circumstances."

Pressler's wife soothed those concerns when she talked to the team Wednesday afternoon.

"There's a certain guilt we have ... because there's a sense that whatever happened last spring cost coach Pressler his job, and it would be very natural for his family to sort of feel frustrated with us and blame his situation on everything that happened last spring," Douglas said. "But he's been extremely supportive of us and the way his wife and children have supported us have meant so much over the last 13 months."

The younger Danowski said the team adopted the motto of Seligmann's high school that translates from Latin into "When chopped down, grows back stronger."

"As a team, last spring, we were literally cut down and taken away from everything we worked for," Matt Danowski said. "To cut down and grow back stronger was the only thing we could do."