NEWARK, Del. - Typically at this time of year, the Delaware men's lacrosse players have their heads buried in their books, preparing for final exams. In those rare idle moments, they may think of the ups and downs of a recently completed season.
This spring, though, they also have quarterfinals, semifinals and, dare they look that far ahead, another kind of final exam on their minds: the NCAA Division I national championship.
"Here we are having finals and we're still playing games," Vince Giordano said the other day before pulling on his gear for practice. "It's different. It feels weird. But everyone's really happy. We've never been this far."
"When you stop and think we're one win from the Final Four, it's unbelievable," added Kevin Kaminski, a freshman midfielder from Strath Haven High School who has 16 goals.
For the Blue Hens, the excitement is about Sunday's game in Annapolis, Md., where they will go against Maryland-Baltimore County, an upset winner over No. 7 Maryland, in a national quarterfinal. Delaware earned it with a stunning 14-8 blowout of No. 2 seed Virginia Sunday on the Cavaliers' turf. Virginia was the defending national champ and ranked No. 3 in the country, but it was no match for Delaware (12-5) in a lopsided second half.
For Giordano, a junior attackman from Moorestown High School who has 16 goals and is averaging two points a game, this giddy journey is a reward for some trying times.
In December, prosecutors from Cape May County, N.J., determined that Giordano was a victim of mistaken identity when he was charged with assault, weapons possession and bias intimidation after an incident that occurred in Sea Isle City last summer.
Giordano was arrested after leaving a party early on the morning of Aug. 22 when police said he fit the description of one of three men who assaulted a black off-duty police officer with a baseball bat while shouting racial slurs.
Giordano maintained his innocence. Nonetheless, he paid a price. Since Delaware has a rule prohibiting a student charged with a felony from attending classes, he missed the fall semester.
Giordano spent the fall working out with a trainer, attending classes at Burlington County College, and working lacrosse camps. Much of the time, though, he spent it worrying whether justice would be done.
"The first month was the worst because we didn't know what was going on," the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Giordano said. "It was really stressful. I wasn't going out. I was pretty much just staying in the house. But once I started to find out what was going on from my lawyer, I realized I was going to be all right."
Then, just as the season was picking up steam, with the Blue Hens winning their first five games, Giordano suffered a torn ligament in his big toe and sprained an ankle. He missed five games, including losses to three other teams in the quarterfinals - Albany, Georgetown and Duke. Delaware sank to 6-5. A season that began with so much promise seemed to be unraveling.
But as injured players returned, the No. 15 Blue Hens reversed gears, earning an automatic bid to the 16-team NCAA tournament by defeating perennial Colonial Athletic Association power Towson, 10-9, in the league title game. They have won six straight, the last five on the road, and the victory over Virginia has them convinced anything is possible.
"We figured Virginia would be more athletic than us, but they weren't," said Giordano, who had two goals against the Cavs. "Taking down the No. 2 seed tells us we can play with anybody. And to think here we are after we almost didn't make the CAA playoffs."
His freshman and sophomore years at Moorestown, Giordano, 21, also ran cross-country and played basketball. But lacrosse has been his first love since fifth grade, and it's in the family's blood. His sister, Cara, is a sophomore who plays for Vanderbilt. Last weekend, Guy Giordano was in Charlottesville watching his son help defeat Virginia while Carol Giordano was in Nashville consoling Cara after a loss to Syracuse.
Delaware coach Bob Shillinglaw said he and Giordano's teammates were convinced Vince was innocent but held their collective breath until he was cleared.
"He's a great kid, and you couldn't meet a nicer family. All the other players love him," Shillinglaw said. "What he had to go through, the media exposure, the accusations. . . . It was a huge sigh of relief when that phone call came because we knew he wasn't guilty. It was a life lesson for everybody. Life isn't always fair."
Healthy and no longer burdened by his ordeal, Giordano is on top of his game, and it's no coincidence the Blue Hens are on top of theirs.
"There's nothing on my shoulders anymore," he said. "All that's in the past. I just think about what's going on now, and this is fun."