Coach leads Mustang rally

April 09, 2009|By MIKE PRESTON

Paul Cantabene finds his team in a position he never thought Stevenson University would be in five years ago when he became coach. The Mustangs are unbeaten in 12 games, ranked No. 1 in Division III and fresh off a 12-8 win over defending champion Salisbury on Saturday night.

So far, Cantabene and his Mustangs are living a dream season.

"When I first took the job, I thought I would be here a year, maybe two, before I went back to Division I," said Cantabene, a former assistant at Towson and Maryland. "But the administration has strongly supported our program, and we have a strong foundation in place with some good, young players. This is a great place to be."

The timing has been perfect. Cantabene has built a program while the school has undergone a face-lift, especially in athletics. Cantabene likes the direction of the program and doesn't mind that he has had to change his approach this season. No longer are the Mustangs the underdog; they're the top dog.

"We certainly used Salisbury as a model because we wanted to be where they are," Cantabene said. "But we also want to have our own identity. I have told our players that we don't want to worry about other teams, we need to be concerned with how we play. It was nice to get the win over Salisbury, but that was just one game. Our goal hasn't changed, and that's to get to Foxborough [Mass.] for the championship."

You expect Cantabene to feel that way. He wants to keep his players on an even keel even though the Mustangs have already gone from rags to riches. Five years ago, Stevenson was still Villa Julie. No offense, but what kind of name is that for a men's lacrosse team?

The Mustangs played and practiced on a field that had more rocks than the Grand Canyon, and they had no laundry or locker rooms. There is nothing worse than being around the stench of hot, sweaty lacrosse players.

Plus, the Mustangs had only 17 players on the roster - and about 34 spectators in the stands.

"I used to call our field Mount Rock," Cantabene said. "It was tough selling the school because we were thought of as an all-girl school or a small Catholic or commuter school. It wasn't real mannish, for a lack of better words."

Cantabene brought a reputation to Stevenson as a disciplinarian, but also a technician. The administration at Stevenson had made him promises five years ago and then started delivering on them.

Two years ago, the school opened a new training facility in Owings Mills that formerly was used by the Ravens and Colts. The school paid the city $4 million for the building and land, and then poured in an additional $3 million in renovations. The Mustangs have one of the better locker rooms in lacrosse, complete with carpeted floors, a game room, sofas, lounges and plasma televisions.

School officials also pumped an additional $100,000 into a modernized weight room and other training facilities, and there are new dorms adjacent to the complex where there was once only hilly and barren land.

Near the current practice fields, construction has already begun on a new parking lot. There are plans to open a new stadium and gymnasium in three years.

The new facilities and plans for the future have made Cantabene's job easier. He has 62 players on the roster, and the Mustangs have a junior varsity squad. A team that once produced only a handful of parents at games now has as many as 1,700 spectators.

"I thought we hit the turning point a couple of years ago because we played a couple of the top teams really tough," said senior Mike Simon, the team's star defenseman. "Ever since I was a sophomore, I had been telling everyone that we would become one of the country's top programs. It feels good to be No. 1, but we're more concerned where we end up. But it's great to be a part of what has happened here."

The players like Cantabene's philosophy. He runs a wide-open offense and calls for pressure defense anywhere on the field. He wants his players to play as he coaches - with an edge.

The Mustangs (12-0, 6-0 Capital Athletic Conference) have outshot opponents 567-338 and outscored them 13.67 to 6.33 goals per game. Stevenson has forced 310 turnovers while committing only 267 and holds a 416-347 advantage in ground balls.

Because of the winning, Cantabene's name surfaces every time a job opens in Division I.

"It took us five years to build up this culture, and I've got a great administration," Cantabene said. "Just because it seems greener, it doesn't mean it's greener on the other side. It would have to be the right job and the right time for me to leave here. Right now, I've got the perfect fit."

Listen to Mike Preston on Mondays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Fox Sports (1370 AM).

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