RALEIGH - "Bittersweet."
That was the word head coach John Danowski and captains Ed Douglas and Matt Danowski used to describe their feelings following Wednesday's announcement by North Carolina State Attorney General Roy Cooper, who dismissed all charges against David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty.
"This isn't a day to gloat or celebrate, it's much more one of relief," Douglas said. "It's more of a sign in recognition that, finally, this has passed us."
Sitting on a bus as they travelled to the former defendants' press conference in Raleigh, the members of the men's and women's lacrosse teams listened intently to Cooper's address over the radio.
When the Attorney General released his decision to close the case and articulated his belief in the defendants' innocence, the captains said the team breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Their 13-month odyssey was over.
"When everyone was listening, it was kind of just like shoulders back and a deep breath like, 'Finally, finally, it happened,'" Matt Danowski said. "We thought it should have been over Day One, but there were so many curveballs and so much going on that you never knew if it was actually going to happen.... Finally there's some completion to it."
Thirty-eight of 41 members of the 2007 men's lacrosse team and all 31 women's players attended a press conference held by the formerly accused and their attorneys Wednesday afternoon. In a strong show of solidarity for their friends and former teammates, the Blue Devils stood at the rear of a gaggle of reporters and television cameras as the three addressed the crowd.
For the players, the press conference was not only the culmination of the 13-month ordeal, but also a reminder of their most important sources of strength.
"The guys on the team and even outside the team-the childhood friends and people on campus who have supported us throughout the whole thing-they've meant a lot to us," Danowski said. "I know they were kind of few and far between in the first couple months, but I think ultimately we found out who our true friends are."
Perhaps no group on Duke's campus had been more adamant in its support of the men's players from the onset than their female counterparts.
Women's lacrosse head coach Kerstin Kimel said her players insisted the team show its support at the press conference, and she rescheduled their practice, allowing them to attend.
"Our girls and our program really stood behind them from the beginning when people were saying the worst possible things about them," Kimel said. "Our kids felt like we were there in the beginning and we should be there at the end, just so they knew that we were behind them the whole way."
After the conference was over, the players lingered in the main ballroom of the Raleigh Sheraton Hotel, exchanging hugs and kind words with each other, the three formerly indicted players and their families.
"[I told them] they've been an inspiration to us the entire year in how strong they've been and how they've really shown the true character of who they are throughout this whole thing," Danowski said. "We actually joked with Collin and Reade and told them that we have practice at 8 o'clock tonight, so to get their cleats on and get ready to go."
But Seligmann and Finnerty gave no indication during the press conference whether they would ever put on Duke uniforms again. Seligmann's father, Phil, told The CBS Evening News that it is "unlikely" his son will return to Duke. Finnerty's attorney, Wade Smith, said his client has not yet decided if he will return and that he is currently weighing his options.
The Duke captains stressed that the team would support and respect whatever decisions Seligmann and Finnerty arrive at in the future, even if they result in their departures from Duke.
"It's going to be a very difficult decision in terms of where they want to go to school and where they want to play lacrosse," Douglas said. "We would love to have them here, but we understand there's larger forces at play."
The potential losses of Finnerty and Seligmann were only two of the departures on which the Blue Devil captains reflected. Douglas and Matt Danowski, as well as head coach John Danowski, expressed the team's regret over former head coach Mike Pressler's resignation last spring.
"It was very painful for a lot of us today," John Danowski said. "That though this is a vindication, a good man is not here, and ironically I am here in his place.... I struggle with that often-to know that I'm here because of this unique set of circumstances."
Danowski said Pressler, who had attended a memorial service for former Duke men's golf head coach Rod Myers at the Duke Chapel Tuesday, addressed the team that same day. In addition, his wife, Sue Pressler, accompanied the team on the bus to Raleigh.
In his own press conference Wednesday afternoon in Smithfield, R.I., Pressler, now the head coach at Bryant University, expressed his relief that the case had come to a close and that his former players were finally exonerated.
"Today is the celebration of the two words we've attached our lives to for almost 13 months-the truth," Pressler said. "You can talk about loyalty, honesty and trust. They all apply to the 2006 Duke men's lacrosse team, but in the end, it all comes to down to the truth."
Still, the players bear the weight of Pressler's forced resignation-and of the entire experience.
"It's a feeling of guilt that we have, being that we've brought this upon ourselves, and the aftermath is going to linger on," Matt Danowski said. "It's not just going to go away. People are not going to stop talking about it."
After all his team has gone through, Danowski said with the case over, his team and his university can finally begin to heal.
"Duke University speaks for itself, and I think that Duke Lacrosse will, in time, speak for itself," Danowski said. "This is something that will eventually be a bruise, but nothing more than that. It will not define this program, just like it will not define Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann."
Meredith Shiner contributed to this story.