Stevenson Downs Rival Salisbury to Make First NCAA Final
|Stevenson's road to its first
NCAA championship game went through former CAC rival Salisbury, as
the Mustangs beat the Sea Gulls 12-6 brefore a record crowd of
2,311 in Owings Mills.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With the high level of success that the Stevenson men's lacrosse team has racked up in recent seasons, it's easy to forget just how far they've come since Paul Cantabene took over the program in 2005.
"When in my first year as coach, we were practicing on a slanted field, and the AD was helping remove rocks from the field, you never really think this moment is possible," Cantabene said. "But these guys to my left and right and all the alumni are why we're here today."
Where the Mustangs are is heading to the NCAA Division III championship game for the first time in school history after topping rival Salisbury University in convincing fashion, jumping out to a 9-3 halftime lead and holding on for the final 30 minutes to take home a 12-6 victory in front of a record crowd of 2,311 in Owings Mills.
The win puts Stevenson onto the game's biggest stage in Philadelphia, where they will battle RIT — a team the Mustangs topped by a 12-11 score in overtime way back on Feb. 27 — at 4 p.m. Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
It's only fitting that the trip to the championship game had to go through Salisbury, as Jim Berkman's squad has been Stevenson's biggest rival during the Mustangs' ascent to the top of the Division III world.
The Sea Gulls, who won NCAA titles in 2011 and 2012 and had made the final in each season since 2009, were Stevenson's primary rival in the Capital Athletic Conference, which it participated in from Cantabene's third season in 2007 until moving to the Commonwealth Conference this spring. Two times previously, the Gulls and Mustangs faced off in the NCAA semifinals, and both times before including last year — the Gulls came away with the win. All told, the teams have played 16 times, with Salisbury holding a 10-6 advantage in the series.
"I'm from Salisbury, so it's just awesome to come out on top against them," said Stevenson junior attackman Chris Dashiell, who came to Owings Mills after playing his high school ball at Parkside (Md.) High and tied teammate Tyler Reid for the game-high with three scores Sunday evening. "Just to be able to hear that last whistle blow, it was just wonderful. I couldn't be any happier right now."
Senior midfielder Peter Green, who had a goal and an assist, was on the roster both times that the Mustangs fell in the NCAA semifinals to the Gulls, watching from the sideline as a freshman in 2010 and tallying a shot and five ground balls in the 7-2 loss a year ago. "We finally got that monkey off of our backs," he said. "To go through them, and to beat them decisively, it just feels really good."
Playing in front of a home crowd that filled the stands on a muggy Sunday evening, the Mustangs showed no nerves after the opening whistle, jumping out to a 3-0 lead and making it 5-1 by the end of the first quarter. The Gulls came back to make it 5-3 early in the second, but the Mustangs scored four unanswered tallies going into the halftime break, including a back-breaker with seven seconds left on the clock to lead by six with 30 minutes remaining.
"We really dug ourselves a hole," said Salisbury's Berkman, whose team finished an up-and-down season at 17-6 and lost in the semifinal round for the first time since 1998. "[Stevenson] shot the ball really well and took advantage. We got it back to 5-3, but then we made some mental mistakes.
"They make you play fast. We talked about what we had to do this week but WE didn't move the ball well enough to do what we wanted to."
Even up by six goals, the Mustangs knew that the game was far from in hand coming out after the break, both for the ease at which emotions can run high when trying to close out such a landmark victory over a longtime rival, and considering that Salisbury had rallied from a 8-3 third quarter deficit to tie Stevenson at 8-8 when they met earlier this season.
"It's something that we saw all year," Cantabene said. "Games that we lost leads, we knew that we needed to learn to play with better composure. We've got some young guys that made some mistakes down the line [in those games], but we really learned from that. This time, when we got a bit tight in the third quarter, we were able to get our rhythm back and just keep wearing them down."
Indeed, though it took over 14 minutes for Stevenson to find the net in the third quarter, it also held Salisbury to just a single goal, then added to the lead early in the fourth quarter. The rest of the time on the clock was well managed by the Mustangs, who maximized their possessions while also avoiding stall calls except on one occasion, turning the clock into the Gulls' worst enemy as the game wore on.
Now the Mustangs find themselves in uncharted territory, with a chance to win its first-ever NCAA championship in lacrosse and finally being able to quiet the chatter about how they had never gotten over the hump and into the game's biggest weekend.
"When you're building a program, you want to build that kind of culture," Cantabene said. "[Stevenson] has been doing athletics for only 17 years and lacrosse only really well for about six. We want to be like Salisbury and do things like they do, and we hope we're just in the beginning stages of that.
"We're happy where we are, but we have one more game."