No. 4 Stevenson not only defeated No. 12 and reigning national champion Salisbury, 12-6, in a NCAA tournament semifinal to advance to the program’s first title game, but the Mustangs may also have banished some ghosts of the past.
Stevenson had been escorted out of the postseason in two of the past three seasons by the Sea Gulls, who still command a 10-6 advantage in their series with their former Capital Athletic Conference foe.
What made Sunday’s triumph even more special is that the Mustangs had been evicted from the Final Four in 2010 and 2012 by Salisbury, a program that has captured 10 national titles.
“We finally got the monkey off our back, finally beating Salisbury,” said senior midfielder Peter Green, a Hereford graduate. “They kicked us out of the playoffs two years in my time here, and to beat them and to do it decisively, it feels good.”
Added junior attackman Chris Dashiell: “It’s awesome to come out on top against them. Being able to [hear] that last whistle blow, your heart just sinks into your stomach and you get real happy, and it’s just wonderful.”
Stevenson’s win came on the heels of last year’s 7-2 loss to the Sea Gulls in the Final Four. Senior attackman Tyler Reid said the pain of that setback had resonated with him.
“Beating them is a great feeling, especially after coming off the field last year,” he said. “It’s never fun to lose when you’re in such a bitter rivalry like that. It’s finally great to get that monkey off your back.”
The Mustangs’ comments are a testament to the stranglehold that Salisbury has maintained in the South region. Prior to Sunday, the Sea Gulls had marched to nine of the past 10 national semifinals and emerged victorious for the right to compete for the NCAA title.
Stevenson (21-2) joins the 2009 Gettysburg squad as the only teams other than Salisbury to represent the South in the tournament final since 2003.
Mustangs coach Paul Cantabene may have paid the Sea Gulls the ultimate compliment when he pointed to Salisbury as a model for what he is attempting to do with his program.
“We’re trying to be like Salisbury,” he said. “We want to do the things they do. We respect them so much and how they go about the program and building and how they’re there every year. We hope that we’re just at the beginning stages of trying to build our program. We’re happy where we are, but we know we’ve got another game and we hopefully have a lot of season ahead of us. But it’s building and doing things the right way, and I think that’s one of the things we’ve always done.”
In just eight seasons, Cantabene has turned a Stevenson team that had never been to the NCAA tournament into a perennial powerhouse that had advanced to four national semifinals in the past five years and is on the cusp of capturing the school’s first Division III championship in any sport.
The journey has been breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time, but Cantabene did not sound as if he would have had it any other way.
“This is a great accomplishment,” Cantabene said. “This is something that as a coach – when I first took over at Stevenson University and in my first year you’re practicing on a slanted practice field and your AD is removing rocks from the field – you never think these moments would be possible. It’s just kind of a miracle that we’re sitting here even talking to you [about] going to this game.”
** Dashiell’s joy at reaching his first NCAA tournament final was bittersweet as it came at the expense of younger brother Brady, a starting freshman attackman for the Sea Gulls (17-6). Chris Dashiell, who scored three goals during the Mustangs’ 4-0 run to close out the second quarter, expressed sympathy for his brother, but predicted that he would play for a national title soon. “He’s got time,” the elder Dashiell said. “He’s obviously a great player, and I think he carried his team on his back. He doesn’t have anything to be ashamed about.” Brady Dashiell, who recorded four points on three goals and one assist, declined to share his thoughts. “I don’t really have a lot to say about it,” he said. “It’s about two great programs going against each other, and it just so happened to be that my brother is on the other side. That’s all I really have to say about it.”