Up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and even in some growing hotbeds near the Mississippi and beyond, this weekend is the beginning of spring, because the college lacrosse season truly gets underway. Most teams ranked in the top 20 of the preseason coaches’ polls, men and women, will have played their season openers by the end of the weekend. The march to the NCAA semifinals and final, the sport’s biggest celebration — a convention and party wrapped into one, held on Memorial Day weekend — has begun.

But here, where the Virginia men’s team is ranked first in the nation and the women are seventh, there is an inescapable backdrop. The trial of George Huguely V — a former Cavaliers lacrosse player accused of murdering a counterpart on the women’s team nearly two years ago — is coming to a conclusion. And fairly or not, because lacrosse has not yet become part of the nation’s mainstream sports discussion, the story of the death of Yeardley Love in May 2010 has become not only about the University of Virginia and its campus culture, about domestic violence and alcohol abuse and a smattering of social issues, but about the sport they both played.

Indeed, when defense attorney Francis McQ. Lawrence first addressed the jury Feb. 6, he said of Huguely: “He’s not complicated. He’s not complex. He’s a lacrosse player.”

Such broad-brush painting rankles the lacrosse community, which felt unfairly stained by a 2006 case in which white Duke players were accused — wrongly, it turned out — of raping an African American stripper they hired for a party. Now, another season opens, with another ugly backdrop behind it.

“People think it goes hand-in-hand: the prestige and lacrosse and these incidents,” said Harry Alford, a former all-American goalie at Maryland who three years ago helped start the boys’ lacrosse program at Wilson High in the District. “That makes for chaos in the media. If you’re inside the sport, you know that’s not what lacrosse is about. But it’s such a sensitive subject.”

Not all ‘elite and exclusive’

The stereotypes that are reinforced in the Huguely case are well-trodden in lacrosse circles. Though the sport has Native American roots, it took hold in the early 20th century at elite colleges and universities, then in prep schools. That spoiled-rich-kid reputation has been difficult to shake, even as the sport has grown exponentially.

“Every stereotype has a basis,” said Steve Stenersen, a former college player at North Carolina who heads U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body. “But I don’t think describing lacrosse today as elite and exclusive is an accurate description.”

Alford’s three-year-old program, one of a few in the District’s public school system, would be one example. Public school teams are now the norm in suburbs from Washington to Baltimore through Philadelphia and New York, well into New England. And for those kids, the Huguely case may not mean much.

“I doubt these kids even know about it,” Alford said.

Those who are trying to spread the sport beyond the East Coast certainly know about it, and a tragedy so closely linked to lacrosse makes their task harder.

“It’s unfortunate that there has been some negativity around our sport,” said Joe Amplo, who will coach the team at Marquette University in Milwaukee when it plays its first varsity season a year from now. Amplo, the former coach at Hofstra on Long Island, a lacrosse hotbed, is one of a handful of established coaches who is trying to take the sport west. (Bill Tierney, who won six national championships at Princeton, became the most notable of these when he took over at the University of Denver in 2010.)

“The way I characterize it is there’s this genuine curiosity around our sport,” Amplo said. “Maybe they’ve got this impression of lacrosse from some of the things that have come up, and they want to evaluate it themselves. But I would like to think that they’re excited about it for what it is, because it’s this great growing sport.”

An unflattering survey

Yet even without the cases at Virginia and Duke, there is data that reinforce unappealing stereotypes about the sport. Last month, the NCAA released a report on drug and alcohol use by student-athletes, and it did not reflect well on lacrosse. The voluntary, anonymous survey — in which athletes filled out a form and mailed it to an independent company — found that 48.5 percent of men’s lacrosse players admitted to marijuana use in the previous 12 months; 9.7 percent used cocaine; and 10.8 percent used some sort of narcotic. All were the highest, by far, of any of the 11 sports measured. Alcohol use came in at 95 percent, exceeded only by ice hockey’s 95.5 percent.

“Maybe it is a wake-up call for the sport to say, ‘What’s going on here?’ in terms of behavior and accountability,” Stenersen said. “Who knows how accurate this survey is, but it gives indications that are not flattering. It is a concern that intercollegiately, and perhaps even from the high school level, that there’s a behavior and a lack of accountability that’s just not good for our sport.”

Even before arguments in the trial began, defense attorneys seemed keenly aware of the potential jurors’ biases concerning athletes. At least one prospective juror, who works in Virginia’s department of parking and transportation, said she found dealing with athletes — particularly football, basketball, soccer and lacrosse players — more difficult than other students. “Just this feeling of: ‘I’m entitled. I can do whatever I want,’ ” she said. She was not selected.

Another jury candidate, a professor of microbiology who was a former athlete and raised three sons as athletes, noted that sports can be violent, and that they breed competitiveness. He wasn’t selected, either. But given the baggage lacrosse carries, he said later that he understood the line of questioning.

“I think what was in their minds was the Duke lacrosse team a couple years ago,” said Jay C. Brown, the Virginia professor who wasn’t chosen for the jury. “. . . That wasn’t really domestic violence, but it was violence that involved women and disrespect for women.

“Here was a guy on our lacrosse team who was involved in domestic violence. Could that have been related to playing lacrosse, like it did at Duke? I think that’s why they were asking, but I just don’t think so.”

Most lacrosse players and coaches fiercely defend the values they learn from the sport, and the outcomes it provides. Of the 18 men’s sports cited in the NCAA’s latest report on graduation rates, released last fall, just three sports — fencing, skiing and gymnastics — posted a higher graduation rate than lacrosse (89.3 percent). The most recent four-class average graduation rate for women’s lacrosse players is 94 percent, matching skiing and field hockey for the best among 18 women’s sports.

“The game taught me, early on, that it didn’t matter your socioeconomic status, your race, your religion,” said Alford, who is black. “It was really inclusive.”

Late Monday afternoon, as a parade of medical experts took the stand at the courthouse downtown, the Virginia women’s team ran drills on a practice field adjacent to Klockner Stadium. Between the courthouse and the practice field is nearly everything in the case: the apartment where Love died; the sorority house where she still has sisters; Boylan Heights, the burger joint across the street from campus where Huguely drank that night.

Saturday afternoon, the men’s team opens its season in Philadelphia against Drexel. The women’s team hosts Loyola (Md.) in its season opener. And in the days leading up to the start of the season, a campus police car sat quietly in the driveway next to the practice field while the women worked out, screening potential entrants, one tangible sign all is still not normal at Virginia, or in lacrosse.

Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.