February 17, 2009

A Thoroughbred by Any Other Name

by Nelson Coffin | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Now that it has a new name, Stevenson University is looking to break at least one old habit.

Chris Baldwin (14g, 13a) and Stevenson (formerly Villa Julie) have been steadily mounting a challenge to Salisbury in the Capital Athletic Conference.  The Mustangs host Widener in their opener Saturday.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

When the school was known as Villa Julie College last spring, the Mustangs dropped one-goal games to Capital Athletic Conference rivals Gettysburg and Salisbury.

That's an issue coach Paul Cantebene would like to see disappear.

"We've come close in a lot of games," he said. "Now it's time to win a few of those."

When Cantabene took the job five years ago, coming within a goal or two of any top opponents would have seemed like a fairy tale.

That's how high the bar has been raised in his tenure, considering Lacrosse Magazine has the Mustangs ranked No. 9 in its preseason Division III poll.

The team made its first real statement two years ago when it knocked off defending national champion Cortland, raising expectations at the 62-year-old suburban Baltimore school that went coed in 1972 and shed its junior-college tag 12 years later. The name changed last June, reflecting "a geographical connection to the founding location of Villa Julie," according to the school's Web site.

The team's fortunes continued to rise 2007 when Cantabene's club compiled an 11-5 record. Last year the wins went up to 13, against four losses.

It still wasn't good enough to garner an invitation to the D-III postseason party, a snub that still rankles Cantabene.

"We're very flattered to be ranked as high as we are this season," the former Loyola College All-America midfielder said. "But that doesn't mean anything, because we know we have to win all of our games."

If that's the only way they can finally reach the playoffs, so be it. The Mustangs feel they have what it takes to compete with the best. After all, the program has blossomed from a 17-man roster when Cantabene first arrived to a robust 49-man squad this season.

"We have depth now," said Cantabene, recently named an assistant coach on the U.S. team that will attempt to retake the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) world title in 2010. "We have five or six good defenseman, four or five quality attackmen and a lot of middies. We're explosive offensively. Plus, these are unselfish kids. It's more of a blue-collar team. We have a lot of guys not from mainstream [high school] programs."

Saying he has been "lucky" in terms of ending up with talented transfers, Cantabene has welcomed some players discarded by other schools for a variety of reasons.

"We have some kids who haven't had the best attitudes, but we try to reform them," he said. "We let them know that how they act is a reflection on the team and the school, and that we're not going to put up with that stuff."

Cantabene, a member of three Major League Lacrosse championship teams (twice with the Baltimore Bayhawks, once with the Philadelphia Barrage) who still owns MLL records for faceoff wins (1,015) and ground balls (518), is a smart recruiter.

Senior middie Greg Furshman was languishing on the bench at Towson when he decided to find more playing time elsewhere. Although he played his high school ball in Florida (Miami's Palmetto High) and Connecticut (Kent School), Furshman enjoyed living in Baltimore with his buddies.

He briefly considered attending UMBC before an interview with Cantabene sold him on Stevenson.

"He told me he wanted to contend for a national championship," said Furshman, an all-conference selection last year who has played in all 51 games since joining the Mustangs. "It was clear and obvious to me that was his goal. After you talk to the guy, you know he means business."

Fellow captain Mike Simon wanted to stay close to home, so the 6-foot-5 senior close defenseman did some homework.

During research on Cantabene, the Fallston (Md.) product discovered the school's administration made promises to upgrade its commitment to the sport. Once there, he liked the way Cantabene guided a team full of transfers to a 10-8 mark in Simon's freshman year.

"You could see the program getting better and better," he said.

One of the reasons is the locker room, which was purchased from the Baltimore Ravens after the NFL team moved to a new practice facility. Boasting a large flat-screen TV, roomy lockers, an X-Box and other amenities, it's become a place to bond.

"Guys are always around the locker room," Simon said. "It's helped tremendously."

Another senior captain, Nick Bevacqua, left Butler just before that program crashed. He landed at Stevenson after the enterprising Cantabene noticed the standout middie from Mountain Lakes High in Boonton, N.J. - whom he recruited while he was an assistant at Maryland - was not on the Bulldogs' roster.

Cantabene called, and Bevacqua, who originally wanted to stay at the D-I level, decided to take a look at the school.

On his first visit to campus, Bevacqua thought the school was small but "in a great location. It looked like it was on the rise. I thought it would be great to be a part of building something big." 

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