By David Ginsburg, AP Sports Writer
BALTIMORE (AP) - The Duke lacrosse team has already been vindicated. Now the Blue Devils are looking for something more tangible to authenticate their return to prominence: the NCAA championship trophy.
The top-seeded Blue Devils (16-2) face unbeaten Cornell (15-0) on Saturday in the semifinal round. Johns Hopkins (11-4) takes on upstart Delaware (13-5) in the other semifinal, with the winners playing Monday for the title.
Two years ago, Duke reached the championship game for the first time in the team's history. Last season, however, was far more memorable - for all the wrong reasons.
After having their 2006 season suspended under a cloud of suspicion and embarrassment, the Blue Devils began anew in February with a 17-11 win over Dartmouth. Now, three months later, Duke intends to finish what it started.
This weekend is about winning the school's first national championship; it has nothing to do with making a statement, the team said.
"I thought that was an issue in the beginning of the year, but at this point, it's just going out there and playing," senior Matt Danowski said. "We've already proven ourselves on and off the field throughout the year. Now, in the Final Four, it's about playing and having fun."
Duke has performed remarkably well under first-year coach John Danowski, Matt's father. The elder Danowski inherited a team rich in experience, but he had to install a new system and overcome the stigma that brought the program to a nadir less than 12 months earlier.
"If you take a look at being with a whole new group of kids for the first time, it's so much easier to get to the freshmen. But now you've got the sophomores, juniors and seniors and they've had a lot of success on their own," John Danowski said. "And now there is a guy coming in trying to tell them a way of doing things and trying not to step on toes and get a feel for things. It has been a process."
It's been quite a successful process. Duke's only losses were by one goal, to Loyola (8-7) and Cornell (7-6). The Blue Devils enter Saturday's game with an 11-game winning streak, including an 18-3 dismantling of Providence and a 19-11 rout of North Carolina in the playoffs.
Against North Carolina, Zack Greer had seven goals and three assists, and Matt Danowski contributed four goals and six assists. Their task Saturday will be to get the best of standout goalie Matt McMonagle, whose 45 career victories are the most in school history.
"He's a very good goalie, obviously one of the best in the country," Matt Danowski said.
McMonagle clearly was the difference in the first game between the teams, on March 20 at Duke.
"I don't think there was any secret. Our goalie played great and we were very fortunate. If you play a team as good as Duke, you have to get a great performance from your goalie and I think we did," Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni said. "We were fortunate to hold them to six goals. I am not sure it is going to be that kind of game again. I think they will be much more rested and much more prepared to compete."
Were it not for Duke, the story of the Final Four would be Delaware, which stunned defending champion Virginia 14-8 in the opening round of the playoffs and advanced to the semifinals for the first time by defeating Maryland-Baltimore County 10-6 last week.
The Blue Hens are led by Alex Smith, who holds the NCAA records for face-offs won in a season and career. Delaware had lost five of six before rebounding with a seven-game winning streak to reach the semifinal round.
In contrast to Delaware's inexperience in the Final Four, Hopkins will be participating for the 27th time. The Blue Jays have won eight titles, the last a one-goal win over Duke in the 2005 championship game.
Hopkins has won seven in a row after starting the season 4-4.