By Steve Jones
Maryland and Johns Hopkins have the longest-standing rivalry in collegiate lacrosse, but there's a budding series that deserves attention. Salisbury and Stevenson are the state's two best NCAA Division III programs. They also may be the top two teams in the nation.
|Jake Stocksdale (Sabina Moran/PressBox)|
Salisbury has won eight national championships, including five in the last eight seasons, but Stevenson is a worthy challenger to the Sea Gulls' throne. In a few short years, the Mustangs’ program has improved dramatically.
Stevenson finished the 2010 regular season as the nation's top-ranked team, before falling to Salisbury in the NCAA semifinals. The third-ranked Mustangs carried a 17-2 record into the Division III tournament.
This season, Stevenson lost only to defending national champion Tufts and Salisbury during the CAC title game, but handed the Sea Gulls their only loss of the season April 16. Coach Paul Cantabene has recruited players that are right for the up-tempo Stevenson system.
"It was a unique situation," said Cantabene, a former All-American at Loyola who came to Stevenson in 2005. "At our first team meeting, we had 17 players. We needed players who would work hard, and got the junior college kids first. After that, we were able to get better players and win more games."
Despite Stevenson's recent success, Salisbury remains king of the hill. The top-ranked Sea Gulls were 17-1 entering the playoffs. In addition to its multiple national championships, Salisbury has achieved four undefeated seasons since 2004. Coach Jim Berkman credits the dedication of his players and staff as the reason Salisbury has remained among the annual contenders for the Division III championship.
"Our players know that they have to get in the weight room and play a lot of wall ball," said Berkman, who was a Division III All-American at St. Lawrence (N.Y.) University. "By their junior and senior years, we want Division I coaches to see them and say, 'How did we miss on that kid?'"
Berkman enjoys the rivalry between the Sea Gulls and Stevenson, and understands that his program will need to work even harder to stay on top.
"There are a lot of good teams in Division III, and unfortunately some will be left out of the tournament," Berkman said. "The last spots will be really tough to call. Stevenson's pool of work is very impressive. At times, we (Salisbury and Stevenson) have been ranked one and two in the country. Facing them two, and sometimes three, times a year magnifies the rivalry. We've played them eight times in the last two-and-a-half seasons, and it's just like playing in the seventh game of an NHL hockey playoff series."
Cantabene appreciates that Salisbury-Stevenson is a healthy rivalry.
"Salisbury's a tradition-rich program," he said. "They respect what we do, and we respect what they do. It's one of the best rivalries in all of college lacrosse. We're 4-4 against each other in the last three years."
Salisbury and Stevenson both received first-round tournament byes, and the two elite programs could meet again.
"It generates a lot of excitement," Berkman said. "And it brings crowds that a lot of bigger schools would die to have at their games."
The NCAA Division I men's and women's tournament fields were announced May 8. Syracuse, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Notre Dame are the top four men's seeds, while Maryland, Northwestern, North Carolina and Florida earned the top four spots in the women's tournament.
On the men's side, there are several other contenders who could reach the Final Four, scheduled for May 28 and 30 at M&T Bank Stadium. Despite losing its final regular-season game to Colgate, Maryland could be a dangerous unseeded team. The ACC champions entered the tournament winners of six of their last seven games. ECAC champion Denver, coached by former Princeton mentor Bill Tierney, could also crash the M&T party. Don't discount defending national champion Duke, a young team that has surpassed expectations this season.
The Maryland women appeared all but unbeatable before Dartmouth upset them during their final regular-season game. But the Terps are loaded offensively, and should have enough firepower to win their second consecutive title and the 11th in program history.
Staying in Place
Fang Mitchell and Ken Niumatololo are familiar names to all Baltimore sports fans. They will remain that way.
In April, both Mitchell, the longtime men's basketball coach at Coppin, and Niumatololo, the successful mentor of Navy football, agreed to long-term deals with their respective schools.
It was a strange start to the offseason for longtime Coppin coach Mitchell. For a while, it appeared the Eagles' coach would leave the school he had built into a MEAC power since arriving in 1986. Mitchell, whose Eagle teams have made four appearances in the NCAA Tournament and two more in the NIT, didn't want to leave the North Avenue school. But school administrators took their time in re-signing Mitchell, who has won 395 games during 25 seasons. Coppin stepped up with a three-year contract that will allow Mitchell to continue building a team that went 16-14 and tied for second in the MEAC last winter.
Since succeeding Paul Johnson after the 2007 season, Niumatololo has guided Navy to a 27-14 record. The Midshipmen have appeared in three-consecutive bowl games and earned two Commander-in-Chief's Trophies under his watch. His 27 wins are the most in school history for a coach during his first three years, and he is one of only three Midshipmen coaches to beat Notre Dame in consecutive seasons. Niumatololo has been prominently mentioned for several positions at bigger schools, but has remained steadfastly loyal to the Academy.
Issue 161: May 2011