But lacrosse royalty spoiled the ending for top-seeded Duke (17-3) as the underdog, Johns Hopkins, survived a determined comeback to win its ninth NCAA men's lacrosse championship, 12-11.
It was the second title in three years for the third-seeded Blue Jays (13-4).
"It seemed like a lot of people in the stands were rooting for Duke," George Castle, a junior defensive midfielder from Penn Charter, said amid the din of the Blue Jays' postgame celebration. "With all they've been through, maybe they had an emotional edge going into the game. But we tried to put that aside."
Duke, which lost a one-goal game to Johns Hopkins in the 2005 championship contest, didn't get a chance to return to the tournament last year because its season was canceled after eight games following the rape allegations.
But this seemed to be the Blue Devils' year. They went into yesterday's game with a 12-game winning streak and with what many regarded as a deeper and more talented lineup. They also had the most explosive scoring tandem in the country in Matt Danowski and Zack Greer. The two attackmen went into the game with 191 points combined, including 110 goals.
But Johns Hopkins had answers for two players who had proved to be nearly unstoppable. Michael Evans glued himself to Danowski, holding him to one goal, and his linemate on defense, 6-foot-5, 235-pound senior Eric Zerrlaut, held Greer without a goal.
"It's just an extreme feeling of emptiness," Danowski said. "To come up one goal short, personally for me, it's not good enough."
Johns Hopkins senior goalie Jesse Schwartzman made clutch stops in the fourth quarter after Duke charged back from a 10-4 halftime deficit to pull even at 11-11 with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining. Just as he was two years ago, Schwartzman was voted the tournament's outstanding player.
"He comes up big in the big games," said midfielder Brian Christopher, a sophomore who graduated from Springfield High School in Delaware County. "I don't think anybody thought we were going to do it."
While building its 10-4 lead, Johns Hopkins dominated face-offs, winning the first nine, and picked apart Duke's defense with crisp passes around the perimeter before launching deadly accurate shots. Jake Byrne had four goals, and Paul Rabil had five assists to go along with a goal. Stephen Peyser controlled most of the face-offs as the Blue Jays ended up winning 17 of 26.
"They definitely did a good job on face-offs and we didn't do a good job on defense," said Duke defenseman Tony McDevitt, a senior who graduated from Penn Charter. "And we had a few meltdowns and some communication breakdowns. You've got to give Hopkins credit. The way they shot the ball - long range, midrange - they were putting on a clinic. They were hitting all their shots."
Still, it was either team's game to win after Duke outscored Hopkins by 5-0 in the third quarter to pull to within 10-9. Kevin Huntley regained the lead for the Blue Jays at 12-11 with his third goal, with 3:25 left. Then Schwartzman made a big kick save on Ned Crotty with less than 10 seconds left to beat back the Blue Devils' final thrust.
Afterward, a tearful Danowski reflected on his time at Duke.
"The type of bond we'll always share is something only we can understand," he said.
Added McDevitt: "I'm so proud of everybody in this locker room. This has been an unbelievable experience. I wouldn't trade my four years at Duke for four years anywhere else. Ups and downs - it doesn't matter because of the guys in this locker room."
Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or email@example.com.