DURHAM, N.C. -- They've waited nearly a year for this, for the moment when "Duke lacrosse" will mean something other than what did or didn't happen last spring.
They know that for most, those words will always conjure memories of a party gone wrong, exotic dancers, a canceled season and rape allegations. They know those words will forever stain three former teammates charged with sexual assault and kidnapping, as well as the veteran prosecutor accused of ethics violations in his pursuit of those charges.
But not Saturday.
That's when "Duke lacrosse" will mean only that it's the home team, back on the field to start a new season against Dartmouth.
"If you're around the guys in the locker room, we don't take things as seriously or [feel] pressure that, 'We've got to win, and if we don't, then people might associate us as guilty again,'" said senior Matt Danowski, a co-captain and son of new coach John
"We're just out there playing lacrosse. We want to play Saturday, because we haven't played in what feels like so long. We just want to turn the scoreboard on, blow the whistle and let's go," he said.
In many ways, the Duke lacrosse team's return will be a celebration. Players will run onto the field through an inflatable tunnel and past smoke machines. More than 60 reporters are expected to cover the nationally televised game, far more than the handful
that might normally cover the team.
"It's going to be very unusual and really exciting," John Danowski said. "All those things combined make it something that I just don't know you can prepare for until you're in it."
Duke doesn't charge admission or sell tickets for lacrosse games, so it's not clear how many fans will come to 6,500-seat Koskinen Stadium on Saturday. But the school expects a big crowd -- and not a collection of protesters -- a further testament to how
much has changed since an alcohol-soaked team party on March 13, when an exotic dancer said she was sexually assaulted by three men in a bathroom.
Duke reinstated the program last June after an internal investigation, and the players all agreed to a new code of conduct that they wrote.
Today, public sentiment has turned almost entirely in the lacrosse players' favor.
But in the days after the party, players were criticized for past behavior, which included a history of alcohol-related criminal charges. Protesters banged pots outside the house where the party took place and marched on campus. The highly ranked Blue Devils,
coming off a NCAA championship game appearance, were 6-2 and a favorite to win the national title when the school placed their season on hold.
In early April, after a particularly nasty e-mail sent by a lacrosse player became public, the university canceled the rest of the season and accepted the resignation of longtime coach Mike Pressler.
"To say I was ever ashamed to be a Duke lacrosse player would be completely false," said senior defenseman Tony McDevitt, who said his parents encouraged him not to be "all Duked out" in public. "But it hurts, no doubt about it. You get affected. You feel sort of the criticism all the time."
Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong denounced the "blue wall of silence," suggesting the team was refusing to cooperate with authorities.
"There are obvious temptations to speak up for yourself like if anybody was saying anything bad about you," senior defenseman Casey Carroll said. "But we knew it was important ... to just let it work itself out."
Players provided DNA samples that later would find no connection between any player tested and the 28-year-old accuser. Those negative DNA tests would become a harbinger of the troubled case against indicted players David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty -- who have steadfastly maintained their innocence.
Nifong dropped rape charges against the three last December when the accuser wavered in a key detail of her account. Less than a month later, Nifong turned the case over to the state attorney general's office after the state bar accused him of ethics
violations -- including lying to the judge in charge of the case about the DNA testing.
State prosecutors have not said if they will take the three indicted players to trial.
Both Seligmann and Finnerty have been invited to return to Duke in good standing, but they're looking at other schools. Evans graduated last year.
All three will be remembered Saturday, as Duke's players wear blue "Innocent" bracelets bearing the trio's jersey numbers. Even so, the team wants to shift the focus from last year's scandal.
"Our objective this season is to move forward," senior co-captain Ed Douglas said. "We're not trying to focus on all that went down last year."