When North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that three former Duke lacrosse players were exonerated of all charges levied against them a year ago, the whole program gave a long-awaited sigh of relief.
As the No. 4 Blue Devils (9-2, 2-0 in the ACC) take on defending national champion No. 3 Virginia (10-1, 2-0) in Koskinen Stadium Saturday at 1 p.m., they look forward to playing their first contest of the 2007 campaign without the national scandal hanging over them.
"We've been playing with this cloud over our head for the first 11 games," co-captain Matt Danowski said. "If anything, I think guys will be more relaxed, more loose and more willing to play with confidence. This cloud's finally been lifted, and this weight on our shoulders is gone."
In light of all that was happening off the field, Duke struggled to focus exclusively on what was happening on it. Players felt they were trying too hard to be perfect, playing to compensate for the intense scrutiny brought upon them by the scandal.
"Ideally, since the start of the season, we've just been playing for ourselves and for the enjoyment of the game," co-captain Ed Douglas said. "But there has been some element of trying to prove people wrong through lacrosse. Now the focus can hopefully be on getting better each week."
Much like the Blue Devils, Virginia runs an up-tempo style that relies on transition offense and a prolific scoring duo. While Duke's Danowski and Zack Greer combine for 48 percent of the team's total points, Cavaliers Ben Rubeor and Danny Glading account for 41 percent of Virginia's.
But despite facing the Cavaliers' talented attack, goalie Dan Loftus and the rest of the Blue Devil defense will make no adjustments this weekend.
"Our defensive philosophy has always been about limiting quality shots and helping Danny make saves," Douglas said. "You just have to be more conscious of them. Every time they have the ball, you understand that they're playmakers. At this level, the guys Virginia puts on the field are extremely talented, so we can't relax when they have the ball."
On offense, Duke will try to improve on last weekend's impressive 11-9 victory over No. 9 Johns Hopkins. The Blue Devils will focus on the one-on-one game, attempting to create scoring opportunities by dodging past a Cavalier team that has a weak help defense.
"We're just going to focus on beating our man and drawing a slide because Virginia's typically a team that doesn't like to slide," Danowski said. "But we also just have to play hard and disciplined for 60 minutes."
As Duke takes the field this weekend, the players are grateful that their only challenge will be the Virginia Cavaliers. For the first time in more than a year, the Blue Devils can just play lacrosse-no dark clouds and no heavy burdens.
"We'll be playing without having to prove ourselves to anybody," Danowski said. "The Attorney General said that we're innocent."
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