Stevenson working hard toward another lacrosse national championship

In what was expected to be a rebuilding year, Mustangs have again been among nation's best; next test is vs. archrival Salisbury on Saturday night

April 18, 2014|Mike Preston

It's been almost a year since Stevenson won the Division III national championship in men's lacrosse, and coach Paul Cantabene still hasn't taken a vacation.

Besides being the head coach, Cantabene is also associate athletic director and chairman of the Hall of Fame, recruiting and scheduling committees.

But nothing drives him more than lacrosse.

"I'm still working on that vacation," said Cantabene, laughing. "The offseason has been similar, but at the same time tougher. There are more obligations, and recruiting is harder.

"Our message this year is to forget about what happened last year; this is a different team with a whole different mindset," said Cantabene, in his 10th season with the Mustangs. "Right now, it's difficult to complain about a team that has lost only one game and is ranked No. 2 in the country. But once you become satisfied, you're headed in the wrong direction."

The Mustangs will know more about their direction Saturday at 7 p.m. when they host No. 3 Salisbury (15-1) at Mustang Stadium. But so far, Stevenson is on course for another national championship game appearance.

The Mustangs have won 13 of 14 games, their only loss a 15-14 overtime setback to No. 1 Rochester Institute of Technology in the second contest of the season. They have outscored the opposition 193-96 and beaten many of the top teams in Division III, including Roanoke, Lynchburg and SUNY Cortland.

There is nothing to dislike about Stevenson.

"Coming into the season, we told our guys that as the defending champions, everybody was going to play us hard, that we were going to get everybody's best game," said Cantabene. "Early on, we struggled with that, the expectations and what it was going to take to carry that load.

"We built this program from nothing to where it is now, but we're just celebrating our 20th anniversary of having sports," added Cantabene. "We don't have 80 years of playing lacrosse, like Salisbury or Roanoke, or 70 years, like Lynchburg or Gettysburg. We only have 10 years, period."

But Stevenson is just as deep as any of them when it comes to talent. The Mustangs lost 11 All-Americans and 14 All-Commonwealth Conference players from last year's team, including six of their top seven offensive players.

After the Mustangs beat RIT, 16-14, in the national championship game last season, this was expected to be a rebuilding year. Instead, some players on the roster stepped up, like attackmen Stephen Banick (26 goals, 15 assists) and Glen Tomkins (24, 16) and midfielder Colin Dabney (22, 6).

And Stevenson got immediate help from transfers such as midfielders Tony Rossi (20, 11) Joe Balestrieri (17, 0), Jordan Seivold (3, 1) and Alex Hardwick (2, 0).

Unlike a year ago, when the Mustangs relied on a strong attack, Cantabene built the offense around his surplus of midfielders while the defense remained strong, anchored by Kyle Holechek and Ryan Rubenstein.

Stevenson, which has a junior varsity, has 69 players in its program.

"Most people would think recruiting became easier, but in fact it got tougher," said Cantabene. "Kids we normally got who wanted to help us win, now thought they weren't good enough to play here anymore. Other colleges, once they heard we were recruiting a player, all of sudden became more interested.

"But we're not at the point where we rebuild," said Cantabene. "In 2011 we lost that great class, and the next year we went 18-5 and still made the final four. Every year we have players who step up. They know it's their turn."

Last year, the Mustangs defeated Salisbury twice, 10-8 during the regular season and then 12-6 in the national semifinals. The Sea Gulls once dominated this series and still hold a 10-6 advantage, but Stevenson is 6-7 against Salisbury since 2009.

When these two teams play, it is as exciting and entertaining as any Maryland versus Johns Hopkins game. But unlike in previous games, Salisbury is playing at a more deliberate pace because it doesn't have a superstar on offense. The defense carries this team.

Salisbury coach Jim Berkman likes where his team is headed.

"I think we're a pretty good defensive team," Berkman said when asked to compare this team to previous ones that won national championships. "We haven't given up a lot of goals against the better teams. We're good on defense, we're stingy, we clear the ball well and we've got a good goalie. So there's definitely that comparison.

"And I've seen signs recently of some tremendous ball movement that is similar to what we've seen with some of our great teams," he said. "We've really been moving the ball and being unselfish and making that extra pass, and moving a lot faster than defenses have been rotating, to score some goals."

Cantabene would like to see his offensive players become less selfish. Like Berkman, he wants a more "clean" game, meaning success on clears and fewer turnovers, errant passes and dropped balls.

The Mustangs no longer live in the Sea Gulls' shadow. They took down Salisbury last year and made their own history.

The question is: Can they do it again?

"After we beat Salisbury last year in the semifinals, I was exhausted," said Cantabene. "It was the fourth time we had been to the semifinals, and we finally made it [to the title game]. Now that our kids have been there once, they know what it takes to get back. It's a lesson we had to learn early in the season, but that's not a concern anymore. We just have to get all the way back to playing tough lacrosse again, where we play with a chip on our shoulders."

That's Stevenson lacrosse.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

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