May 23, 2013

WD3 Season Debrief: Can Anyone Disrupt the Top 4?

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

Salisbury's Ashton Wheatley, the IWLCA Goaltender of the Year, put on a show at Stevenson over the weekend and returns again for the Sea Gulls.
© Scott McCall

It was hard not to feel for Kathy Taylor.

For the third year in a row, Cortland came into the final four as hot as any team. And for the third year in a row, Taylor took the podium first following a Saturday semifinal loss. Cortland lost to Trinity, 8-6, in the NCAA Division III semis at Stevenson in Owings Mills, Md.

“Always a tough statement to make,” Taylor said. “I’ve been here three years in a row... We came here hoping to have a do-over from last year and the end result wasn’t quite what we were hoping for.”

Obviously not. Cortland was as close as ever this year, leading Trinity 3-0 in the early going. But there are 237 other D-III teams who would gladly switch places with the Red Dragons. 

Will anyone get that chance next year? Maybe. But in a way too early look toward next season, the same four teams once again look ready to repeat.

Top 5 for 2013

1. Salisbury 

The Sea Gulls are the first undefeated NCAA Division III champion since 2007 and they beat the undefeated defending champions to do it. No one’s yet developed a metric for rating the dominance of champions, but the 2013 Sea Gulls would be near the top of that list.

Key Returner: Ashton Wheatley, JR GK

The reigning IWLCA Goaltender of the Year put on a show at Stevenson, using every part of her body to shut down Middlebury and Trinity. Against Middlebury, Salisbury trailed at halftime for the first time all season and it was Wheatley who kept SU from falling too far behind.

It’s no surprise that Wheatley was a field player until high school, when her older sister Allie, now an SU assistant, encouraged her to fill the Salisbury School’s vacant goaltender position. Today she’s one of the NCAA’s most athletic goaltenders, a player who often has opposing attackers behind her while her team’s on offense. But Wheatley has the athleticism to freelance like that. She typically beats the attackers back to the position.

SU All-American midfielder Kate Bollhorst goes against Wheatley every day in practice and said it best: “You can fake her five times high, shoot the ball low and her foot comes out of the air and stops it. She’s an amazing goalkeeper and an amazing athlete.”

Question: Will there be enough offense? 

Wheatley will keep SU in every game, and plenty of talent returns, but Salisbury graduates three of its top four scorers: Bollhorst, Lauren Feusahrens and Maggie Roundy. Those are some program-defining talents, but Wheatley plus a talented group of underclass scorers, led by Bethany Baer, will have Salisbury entering next year as overwhelming favorites. 

2. Trinity

The 2012 NCAA Division III champions were nearly better in 2013, but fell short in the championship game. It was Trinity’s first loss since April 25 of last season.  After the game, Trinity coach Kate Livesay spoke of how the Bantams kept searching for a comfort zone that Salisbury wouldn’t let them enter.

“I felt like we could have matched up better than we did today,” Livesay said. “I thought it could have been a really good matchup for us, their defensive style lends itself to how well we play. We couldn’t quite get into a rhythm today.”

Salisbury spent the past year cheering “redemption” as its mantra. You can bet Trinity will rally around a similar motto over the next 365 days.

Key Returner: Emily Mooney, FR GK

One of the things lost when Salisbury rolled to victory in the title game, was that Trinity shut down Cortland with a freshman between the pipes in the semifinals. Mooney started just six games this year, but saw extensive time in the NCAA quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. It’s the kind of experience you can’t teach and has Trinity favored to return to another title game. 

Question: But can Trinity win the NESCAC again?

Back-to-back NCAA titles is one thing, you only have to beat two top teams during the final four. To finish atop the NESCAC, Trinity had to overcome six Top 20 teams and beat a couple of them twice. Middlebury, Amherst, Bowdoin and the rest will all be good again. Repeating in the NESCAC may be tougher task than returning to the title game.

3. Cortland

Nine seniors, including goalie Shauna Hutchinson and midfielder Maria Di Fato, who graduates as just the second 300-point scorer in program history, will leave, but Cortland returns a loaded team, including All-American Jessica LaValle, who returns to anchor a defense ranked ninth in goals against average.

Key returner: Erica Geremia, FR A

Cortland had a very young team this year, with 11 freshman. The Red Dragons still made the Final Four. Geremia was a big reason for that. Her 136 points were the most ever by a Cortland freshman. She could be the most talented offensive player in Division III as soon as next season.

Question: Are they still another year away?

One of these seasons Cortland is going to win it all. New York is a fertile recruiting ground, Taylor mines it so well, and the in-season competition from the SUNYAC has Cortland more prepared each season. But Di Fato is gone. Are eleven freshman becoming 11 sophomores enough experience to make the leap?

4Middlebury

Middlebury graduates its top three scorers, but the Panthers are extremely well coached and came within a goal of shocking Salisbury, thanks in large part to early dominance on the draws. With the built-in strength of the NESCAC schedule, the Panthers will forever enter the tournament as one the NCAA’s most battle-tested teams. 

Key Returner Liza Herzog, JR M

Herzog corralled four draw controls in the semifinal loss to Salisbury and, going against one of D3’s most athletic teams, was in the mix every time the ball hit the turf. She’s Middlebury’s leading returning scorer and should contribute even more as the Panthers search for a third-straight trip to the Final Four.

Question: Can they beat the best?

In the past two seasons, Middlebury has four losses to Trinity, two losses to Salisbury and two losses to everyone else in the country. The Panthers always have to play Trinity, probably twice, and to win a sixth NCAA title, they’ll likely have to get past Salisbury.

5. Franklin & Marshall

The Diplomats are back. Only Middlebury came as close to defeating Salisbury as F&M did. SU defeated the Dips, 8-6, in the quarterfinals. F&M loses just three seniors and is the early favorite to be the Final Four's party crasher. 

Key Returner: Mike Faith, 1st Year Coach

From a season-opening victory against York to a near-miss against Salisbury to close the year, Faith immediately put F&M back in its place among the nation’s elite. With a year to recruit and another season running the team, the Diplomats are a team to be taken seriously.

Question: Can the Big Four accommodate one more?

Salisbury, Trinity, Cortland and Middlebury look to be very strong again. If F&M wants a third NCAA title, its going to have to take it from some talented, experienced squads.

Four More

Franklin & Marshall is the No. 1 contender to disrupt the status quo. Here are four more with a chance to do the same:

TCNJ

The Lions were young — with just three seniors and 11 freshman on the roster — and still knocked Colby out in the NCAA second round and kept pace with Trinity early in the quarterfinals. With Lauren Pigott leading the way on offense, and a great coaching staff always digging up the Garden State's hidden talent, TCNJ will find its way back to the top of the rankings sooner rather than later

York

The Spartans graduate a senior class that helped transform York into a national power, but plenty remains including Erica Mulford and goalie Ashley Smith. As the No. 1 contender to Salisbury's CAC throne, the Spartans should be very familiar with the Sea Gulls by the time the NCAAs roll around. York's budding non-league rivalry with F&M should turn into one of Division III's best if it continues.

Gettysburg

The season ended with a surprising loss to a red-hot RPI team, so it’s easy to forget how good the Bullets were this season. Prior to their exit in the second round of the NCAAs, the Bullets had lost just once, to Middlebury, in a close three-goal game. They also beat Ithaca, TCNJ and F&M (twice). Gettysburg graduates a strong senior class, but six juniors remain from the 2011 championship team. As Salisbury showed this year, you can’t count out a group of seniors looking for one more ring.

RPI

The first hint that RPI was engineering something special was a non-league game on March 20, when they only lost to mighty Middlebury by four. In beating St. John Fisher and Gettysburg back-to-back to open the NCAA tournament, then leading Middlebury at halftime in a rematch, and forcing the Panthers to change goalies, before losing by two in the semifinals, RPI announced its arrival on the national stage. The Engineers graduate five seniors, but return leading scorer Rachel Scofield and junior captain Liz Powell. Surprise champions don’t actually come out of nowhere. If RPI shocks the world next year, the experience in this year’s NCAA tournament might have been just the ticket. 

And of course, there’s Bowdoin, Colby and Amherst, who will be tested by a tough NESCAC slate; Geneseo, which has emerged as the SUNYAC’s No. 1 contender and a slew of other hopefuls from Maryland to Maine to Michigan to California. 

There’s also one other team that wasn’t in the tournament but attended the final four.

Stevenson did an outstanding job throughout last weekend, with many of its girls working to make sure the event went as smoothly as possible. A couple of players were talking in an elevator elevator about how weird it is to work in a tournament they weren’t playing in.

“Yeah,” one said. “But we’ll be playing in it next year.”

That’s the best thing about this week. For every team, there's always next year.


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