By Todd McElwee
|At 14-1, the Stevenson University's men's lacrosse team has molded itself into a Division III power and a genuine national title contender.
(Courtesy of Stevenson University)
So far, the setback was the lone low in a season filled with an unparalleled highs. But as was the case with previous accomplishments, the defeat won't change the Mustangs.
"I think our kids are just going to keep playing our game, playing with confidence and with an edge," Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene said. "Things seem to work out with us when we play that way. We started changing a lot of things and going about it differently and we struggle."
The Stevenson lacrosse program has come into its own during 2009. At 14-1, the Mustangs have molded themselves into a Division III power and a genuine national title contender.
No, the Mustangs don't change from day to day, but they are a transformed bunch.
"We throw around that term 'family' a lot," senior midfielder Greg Furshman said. "Even in past years we threw it around a lot, but this year we really are a family. We hang out off the field just as much as we do in practice. Everyone has each other's back."
Finishing last season at 13-4, with all the losses coming to top-five opponents, Stevenson wasn't rewarded with an NCAA bid. Don't think the Mustangs have forgotten.
"It was horrible," Furshman said. "I think everyone left last season with a bad taste in their mouth. In a way it was kind of a blessing in disguise that we got snubbed last year. Everyone went into the offseason and trained harder and was just more determined. And it's showing so far this year."
The road to respect started five years ago.
Cantabene, a Loyola alum, took the helm on Greenspring Valley Road. Stevenson, then known as Villa Julie, had only flirted with mediocrity, posting three winning seasons in 10 years. Cantabene's first team finished with a 9-6 mark. An increase in victories occurred over the following three campaigns.
For Cantabene, who is 56-24 at the school, March 30 was a day like any other. He went to work and his office looked the same. The practice fields hadn't moved and his roster remained intact. The only difference was that for the first time, the Mustangs were the nation's No. 1-ranked team.
"I think we just wanted to go about things the same way we always have," Cantabene said. "The only thing that probably changed was the feeling that five years of hard work it took getting my team to that level. That was satisfying for me to boast that I have the number one team in the country. But the way we addressed our business, and go about our business was really the same way."
Ascending to the top of the polls is cause for celebration. The Mustangs were 9-0 at the time and had done something none of their predecessors could manage. However, the revelry was brief.
What good is being No. 1 if you can't stay there? A cup of coffee at the top wasn't enough. The recognition only pushed the team to achieve greater heights. Plus, another unrealized challenge was right around the corner: an April 4 trip to Salisbury.
"If anything it [the No. 1 ranking] made us work a little harder," Furshman said.
The Sea Gulls had long been a thorn in Stevenson's side, as well as the rest of the nation's DIII teams. Claiming five of the last six Division III national titles, Salisbury hadn't dropped a conference game since 1994. Last May, the Sea Gulls virtually denied the 13-4 Mustangs a NCAA tournament bid with a 20-10 drubbing in the CAC finale.
This time was different. Leading, 6-5, at intermission, Stevenson exploded for five goals in the third quarter to take a commanding 11-6 advantage. Holding on in the fourth, the Mustangs claimed a 12-8 win for what was categorically the biggest victory in school history.
"Going into that Salisbury game, most teams would have been happy just to be close," Cantabene said. "Our guys knew we could win the game. We thought we were the better team at that point in the season and we played that way."
Once again Cantabene and the team returned to work. They had slain the giant, but refused to rest on their laurels.
Salisbury's revenge was quick and sweet when the two met in a rematch in the conference tournament final. The Shoremen jumped out to a big lead and walloped the Mustangs, 13-5.
Still, that lone defeat doesn't tarnish Stevenson's accomplishments and it is likely the Mustangs will be awarded an at-large berth in the national tournament.
Sophomore attackman Jimmy Dailey's (Winters Mill High) tops the team with 57 points (26 goals, 31 assists). Towson graduate Richie Ford paces the Mustangs with 37 goals while Tyler Maguire has recorded a team-high 51 groundballs. Net minder Geoff Hebert (Dulaney High) is 13-1 with a .594 save percentage.
Despite averaging approximately 14 tallies per outing, Cantabene regards his defense as the team's backbone. He says Mike Simon is the best long sticker in the nation and can always rely Evan Douglas and Ian Bolland in front of a tremendously steady and confident Hebert.
Stevenson will conclude its regular season at Denison May 2. The tournament field will be selected the next day. It seems impossible the Mustangs will be snubbed this time around.
What does Cantabene plan on telling his troops if indeed they are chosen for their very first NCAA contest?
"I always tell them to keep doing what you're doing all year," he said. "Don't do anything different. We'll make minor adjustments and get better, but what we're doing is working."
Posted April 22, 2009