BALTIMORE - When the Virginia men's lacrosse team walked into the interview room

en masse

on Thursday at M & T Bank Stadium, where the NCAA Final Four will take place, it wasn't hard to spot Downingtown native and Hill School grad Ken Clausen.

The senior was the one with the long, flowing, black hair that fell just above his shoulders. On Saturday, when the Cavaliers (16-1) take on Duke (14-4) in the national semifinals at 6:30 p.m., the 6-2, 201-pound three-time all-American will continue a quest for a national championship despite the team having to endure an almost unthinkable tragedy.

It's been a few weeks now since the Virginia community was rocked by the killing of 22-year-old Yeardley Love, a player on the Cavaliers women's team whose battered body was discovered in her off-campus apartment May 3. Authorities have charged her boyfriend, George Huguely, who was a member of Virginia's men's team, with first-degree murder in her slaying.

All of a sudden, lacrosse and the the NCAA tournament were not at the forefront for two groups of players who had lived and breathed lacrosse since they were youngsters.

"It's been difficult, and a tough time," said Clausen, who served as a pallbearer at Love's funeral. "We've done a great job bonding together as a team. We've had unbelievable support from our families and our coaches, and the university as a whole. We're playing now for the girls' team, and Yeardley, and they are definitely on our minds. It was an honor to be one of the pallbearers for the funeral. It was a sad day, and hard to believe, and it's a day you could never imagine in your mind."

The co-recipient of the USILA Schmeisser Award that goes to the national defensive player of the year, Clausen is trying to lead top-seeded Virginia to its first national championship since 2006, and its fifth overall. This year's other semifinal, Cornell (12-5) vs. Notre Dame (9-6), will take place at 4 p.m.

The championship will be contested on Monday. Virginia went down in the semifinals in each of the last two seasons.

"This is our third year in a row in the Final Four, and we haven't accomplished our goal yet," said Clausen, who is a finalist for the Tewaaraton Award that honors the most outstanding men's player. "Coming into Virginia, the goal of me and my classmates was to win a national championship. We've been close, but we haven't completed what we set out to do four years ago. Everybody is excited to be back here, and we're ready to lay it on the line."

While the Virginia women lost to North Carolina in the quarterfinals on May 22, the Cavaliers' men's team kept advancing. The men edged Stony Brook, 10-9, to set up a meeting with a Duke team that Clausen, ironically, has a history with.

He committed to the Blue Devils the summer before his senior year of high school. But after a scandal involving three Duke players and accusations of sexual assault of a dancer, the team's coach was fired, its 2006 season was canceled, and there were discussions at the school about dropping the program.

Clausen asked for and received a release from the university. The case against the Duke players was later dropped. Clausen signed with Virginia and became an honorable mention all-American as a freshman in 2007. He's been a first-teamer in each of the last three seasons, and is the first Cavalier to accomplish that feat.

"He's the type of leader on the field that you can see directing other players," said Duke midfielder Steve Schoeffel. "He has a grasp of the whole defense, and he's an anchor for them. Very talented."

This season, Clausen ranked sixth nationally with 2.18 caused turnovers, and is second on the team with 52 ground balls.

"It's unfortunate what happened at Duke, but I couldn't be happier with where I am at Virginia," Clausen said. "With everything that's gone on, I met some unbelievable people. I wouldn't go back and trade it for the world. It's fitting for the semifinal game of my senior year, we're playing Duke. One thing in playoffs, you have to maintain your poise through thick and thin. You're going to have ups and downs. And a key theme always is if you can possess the ball, you're going to have more opportunities to score."

Clausen said what the team has gone through in recent weeks has given the players an additional motivation to keep playing.

"No way it's going off anybody's mind anytime soon," he said of Love's death and the circumstances surrounding it. "I think a kind of a motto for our team is that we want to win, but not because it's the playoffs, and not because we have to. We want to win because we want to spend some more time together as a team. We're not ready to let this thing go yet."

Contact staff writer Kevin Tatum at 215-854-2583 or ktatum@phillynews.com.