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BALTIMORE -- Just wearing the jersey was hard. The words "Duke lacrosse" were viewed more as scarlet letters than banners of pride.
The players knew it. They put on a brave face and went about their business, but the Blue Devils were well aware of the word association people made with their names: Duke lacrosse equated to scandal and shame.
One year gave way to two, to three and though the charges of rape were dropped and the players involved in the 2006 scandal ultimately exonerated, the stigma still existed.
There was, after all, nothing else to associate Duke lacrosse with. Since 2006, the Blue Devils played for one national championship and made two other Final Four appearances but each time, the Devils came up short.
|CJ Costabile won the first faceoff in OT and scored five seconds later to end the game.|
And then in five short seconds, CJ Costabile did what four years couldn't do. The sophomore long pole won the opening faceoff in overtime, sprinted down the field and scored to give Duke a 6-5 victory over Notre Dame, its first lacrosse national championship and the ultimate cathartic moment.
On the field, amid the sticks and gear flying like celebratory confetti, Zack Greer, Matt Danowski and Tony McDevitt embraced and cried.
The trio was part of the 2006 team that had its season wiped away, its program decimated and its name sullied.
And now, finally, it was part of something else.
"It means so much for them and to me as well," coach John Danowski said. "It was a very emotional time. You could see how much they cared. There was so much emotion in those first two years. These guys acted like everything was OK, but it wasn't. To have them with us on the field celebrating, it felt so good."
At the time when their names were in the national news and the media swarmed on their campus, that 2006 season seemed like an end.
In fact, it was a beginning.
The NCAA granted 33 players an extra year of eligibility because of the extraordinary circumstances of the season -- Duke elected to end its season after just eight games amid the allegations and investigation -- and those 33 players became the core of what was to be.
"It was hard," said Ned Crotty, who is now a fifth-year senior. "We knew no one liked us and we definitely leaned on each other. We realized the only thing that mattered was us. We knew everyone else hated us, so we knew we only had each other. That's why this team is so tight-knit."
The tight-knit bond never mattered more than it did against a stingy Notre Dame team that rankled many of its opponents with its methodic pace and brick wall of a defense.
Duke came into the game averaging 17.5 goals per game in the postseason and left as half of the entry in the ledger for the lowest-scoring affair in NCAA championship history.
The Notre Dame defense made simply looking at the goal impossible and when Duke found it, the Devils also found Scott Rodgers. The 6-foot-4, 254 pounds of imposing force earned tournament most outstanding player honors after a near-perfect game.
He faced 21 shots and recorded 15 saves.
|Scott Rodgers was a wall in goal for Notre Dame, earning most outstanding player honors.|
It was the "near" in the near-perfect that will haunt him.
"You don't know what to look for when you've got a guy with a 6-foot pole on you," Rodgers said of the game winner. "He can put it low like a catapult or go high. It's exactly the kind of shot you don't want to see if you're a goalie."
Costabile and Trever Sipperly tussled on the faceoff throughout the game. Their 34-second deadlocked standoff in the second quarter offered one of the few bits of excitement for the heat-stroked fans to cheer about.
But when it counted, Costabile won the ball cleanly and sprinted toward the goal.
"I'm mad at myself about that," Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan said. "We probably should have played more defensively there. We weren't thinking they'd get a fast break there because Trever had controlled the ball for the better part of the game.
"That said, we also knew that CJ is the kind of kid, if he can win the faceoff cleanly, he can shoot it."
Slowed by an ankle injury suffered in a sledding accident in December ("We don't talk about sleigh-riding with CJ," Danowski joked), Costabile wasn't really up to snuff until mid-April.
The ACC tournament MVP last year after scoring three goals, Costabile didn't notch his first goal this year until the postseason.
Now he has the biggest goal in Duke lacrosse history.
"Everyone else was shut off, so I just took the lane that was open," Costabile said. "As to whether I put the shot high or low, I couldn't tell you. I just let it rip."
Which is exactly how his coach drew it up.
|Coach John Danowski is acutely aware of what Duke's seniors have overcome en route to the title.|
Danowski didn't diagram any trick plays or any simple plays before the overtime began. He told his players to play to win.
It was vintage Danowski.
An offensive-minded coach who lets his players play, Danowski is a laid-back (at least among the subspecies that is head coaches) guy who dots his conversation with words like "cool."
Formerly head coach at Hofstra, he admitted he only took the Duke job because it gave him a chance to coach his son, Matt.
"I wouldn't have applied for the job, otherwise," he said. "I knew too much. I knew the players involved, I knew their families."
He turned out to be exactly the man Duke needed. Danowski and his calm force steadied the unsteady rudder, steering the Blue Devils to the title game immediately after the program had been brought to its knees.
Duke lost 12-11 to Johns Hopkins that year.
A year later it was another one-goal heartbreaker at the hands of Hopkins, this time in the semifinals, and last season, a soul-searching, gutchecking, 17-7 dismantling by Syracuse in the national semis.
This Duke team came in less heralded than its predecessors -- the Devils were just a 5-seed -- and had the uneasy route through rival North Carolina and top-seeded Virginia to get here.
But the Devils never cared about their seed or the expectations.
They cared, as they have since 2006, about one another.
"I hope this takes over the story of Duke lacrosse," Crotty said. "Hopefully we can put everything else to rest, so when people think of Duke lacrosse, they think 2010 national champions."
And then he paused, smiled, exhaled and shook his head, realizing what he had just said.
Pardon him. It will take some getting used to, all this good news associated with Duke lacrosse.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.