May 11, 2009

Triple Threat: Meeting for a Third Time

by Jac Coyne | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Coyne Archive

Russ Follansbee (above) and Wesleyan have already defeated Middlebury twice this season. What is the key for the Cardinals to make a clean sweep in the NCAA quarterfinals? It will be forgetting about the previous two contests, according to Wesleyan coach John Raba.
© Tony Pratt

After he graduated from St. Lawrence in 1982, Jim Berkman spent some time playing indoor lacrosse in Canada. Unlike the playoffs we see in college, or even the NLL, which features a one-game format, Berkman remembers his box team having to play a best-of-seven series to advance.

It was a taxing journey, with each side knowing exactly what the other wanted to do, and each player building a contempt for his opponent with the repetitive familiarity.

While he has never played a team three times in a season during his 21 years as the head coach at Salisbury, he's guessing his Canadian box experience is what it will be like when the Sea Gulls and their Capital Athletic Conference rival Stevenson match-up for the third time on Wednesday in an NCAA Division III quarterfinal.

"You have to be mentally and physically tough," said Berkman. "And there are a lot of things that aren't forgotten that are brought to the table, making for a real physical kind of arena."

Paul Cantabene, who will be standing on the other end of the sidelines when Salisbury and the Stevenson square off, has never faced a team three times during his tenure at Stevenson either, or at any of his coaching stops at Maryland, Towson and Johns Hopkins.

Cantabene has, however, met an opponent three times as a player in both the indoor and outdoor professional leagues. His judgment?

"Three times is tough to do."

While Berkman and Cantabene are getting their first taste of the trifecta, two teams are gearing up for a third meeting in a series that is becoming almost customary. Middlebury and Wesleyan, both members of the NESCAC, are not only hitting the triple on Wednesday in another NCAA quarterfinal, they are ratcheting it up a notch.

They are doing it for the third time in five years.

For Wesleyan coach John Raba, who has been involved in all three of those three-spots, the key is compartmentalization.

"The approach for us is separation; not thinking about the last two games," he said. "It's a new game, and it's just one game."

Raba's first series was against former Middlebury coach - and current athletic director - Erin Quinn, but the last meeting of three came against Dave Campbell in 2007, when the two teams split the first two match-ups before Wesleyan took the decisive contest in the NCAA second round.

It's a Panther loss that still lingers.

"Losing to that team, having them end our season in that fashion, was hard on that senior class," said Campbell. "This senior class, which were sophomores then, will be ready this time around."

The key ingredient, and the one that makes losing a third contest so memorable, is the relationship between the schools that participate in them.

This doesn't happen to a couple of random teams.

It only occurs with league foes who meet in the regular season, their conference tournament and then the NCAA tournament. The battle for supremacy within a conference creates an instant rivalry - one that is already established in the NESCAC and one that is being inaugurated in the CAC this year. With each meeting, the importance of the contest is heightened and, not suprisingly, it causes massive spikes in every single emotion a player, a coach and a fan can feel.

With all of the excitement hovering around a third game, it's only natural to ask if there is any way to determine who has the upper hand? The four coaches involved react to three possible indicators.

Previous Results
When Middlebury and Wesleyan first did their three-part dance in 2005, the Panthers entered the third installment in the NCAA quarterfinals with triumphs in the previous two meetings. They won the final meeting, as well, albeit by a smaller margin than the previous two.

In '07, the two teams split, with Wesleyan winning in the regular season in overtime and Middlebury winning the conference tournament match-up by five goals. As mentioned above, the Cardinals won the pivotal third game.

With such a small sample size, it's tough to draw any conclusions, but Campbell and his team are cherishing another chance at Wesleyan. It's not surprising, considering the two Cardinal losses are also Middlebury's only defeats of the season.

"I think our mindset going in is there isn't a team that we'd rather see than these guys," said Campbell of Wesleyan. "We want to be able to show we can beat these guys, and if we're going to do anything past that, it wouldn't feel right without a chance to show we are a better team than Wesleyan. We think this is the perfect match-up and we're pretty thrilled about it."

Continuing his theme of looking at each game in a vacuum and not as part of a series, Raba doesn't believe previous results are an indicator of anything other than the game was played.

"I certainly don't think that we have a huge advantage because we won two games, and I don't think we're at a disadvantage because we won the first two," said Raba. "It's just the next game - the next important game - for us. That will be how we look at this thing."

Salisbury and Stevenson split their first two match-ups: Stevenson cruising to a 12-8 win during the regular season and Salisbury breezing in the CAC finals, 13-5. Because neither have experience with a third game, it's tough for Berkman and Cantabene to gauge who has an advantage, but both believe the contest they lost could have gone the other way.

"We weren't really into it mentally," said Cantabene. "We were mentally soft and we made some poor decisions. We didn't finish some shots that we usually finish and we got a little tight as the game closer. That affected us."

"There's a lot of deception because if you weren't at that game and didn't see the film, Stevenson played a great game, but the score was tied 6-6 in the third quarter," said Berkman of Salisbury's loss, pinpointing a couple of incorrect moving screen calls as being critical. "We didn't make the goalie make any saves in the first game and we self-destructed in the third quarter."

Mental Make-up
It's safe to say whichever team can handle the pressure of the situation will be the one advancing to the semifinals.

"Guys are going to be juiced up to play this game, so it's going to be about staying focused and staying composed when a team makes a run," said Raba. "At some point, there will be a three or four-goal run and the team that has the composure to answer back, or to play with poise and not get too excited if you were fortunate to have the run, will be the team that comes out on top."

Raba was no doubt taking a page out of the last meeting between Wesleyan and Middlebury during the NESCAC tournament when the Panthers raced out to an 8-3 halftime lead, only to see the Cardinals answer with a couple of runs before grinding out a 15-14 overtime win.

The Middlebury coach understands his team gave away that chance, but he doesn't think his team will be hindered by an overwhelming sense of revenge.

"I don't worry about us being too emotional," said Campbell. "We have such a veteran group that it is going to be a good thing for us. There will be some highs and lows in the game, and that's something we've been focusing on, just playing through those. Wesleyan's a good team and they are going to make some plays. We're just going to ride out the emotions and play our game no matter what is going on."

Remaining cool when the pressure builds will be particularly important to Stevenson.

While the Mustangs are making their first appearance in the NCAA quarterfinals, this part of the bracket has been a speed bump for recent Gulls teams. Salisbury has made a cottage industry of taking advantage of its opponent's lack of composure, but Cantabene believes his squad has the perfect demeanor.

"I think our guys are pretty laid back," he said. "We've never been a big rah-rah group here. We've played in big games and we've been in every situation now, so I think our guys will take it in stride. I don't think they're going to kill themselves mentally and be done before the game."

Game Plan
Or, in the case of these two games, the lack of a game plan.

When teams meet for the third time with a short timeframe to prepare, there are no secrets. Just roll the ball out and play.

"You don't have to reinvent the wheel," said Berkman. "It's not like we're playing Roanoke for the first time and all of a sudden we're scrambling to get some film because we haven't seen them in person. We're not worried about match-ups because we know who is going to guard who on that team, and they know who they'll have guarding players on our team. We know some tendencies from playing them the time before, although that's not to say that someone isn't going to put a new wrinkle in."

"Both teams have each other scouted so well that it will come down to the ground balls, face-offs and goaltending that are going to make the difference," said Campbell. "I think each team will have a wrinkle ready, but you only have two days to prepare, so there is nothing drastic. It is definitely fine-tuning what you do, and a lot of times these games are determined by who executes their game plan better and what they're able to do better."

"At this time of year, you just keep on doing what you do," added Cantabene. "It's how you tweak what you do. The little nuances you change: who you initiate with, do you go early or do you not go early? Those are the little things you can change at this time of year. You don't change your whole system because you don't have enough preparation time."

The temptation for coaches at this point in the season is to be a puppeteer for the players, micromanaging every clear, ride and offensive set. Raba has tried that and it just doesn't work. As much as he'll be helping his kids adjust to situations during the game, the players are ultimately the ones who will determine the game's outcome. That's true in the first meeting or the third.

"The game of lacrosse has to be flowing with the kids taking care of it on the field," said Raba. "We'll help them with some of the adjustments that we see from the sideline, but it will be the kids who are going to be managing the game and making plays when the opportunities present themselves.

"That's the game. At some point when they breakdown, they'll have to identify things. When the kids become robotic, they struggle. If something doesn't work, they freak out. If you let them play and stick to some basic principles, that's when we have our most success."

It's easier said than done, though.

You have to take advantage of your third chance at an opponent. There is never a fourth.

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