May 13, 2009

Stevenson Justifies Newfound Swagger

by Paul Ohanian | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In 1991, a young Jim Berkman, then in his third season at Salisbury, led the Sea Gulls to the national championship game for the first time. Salisbury faced perennial Division III champion Hobart in that final and lost by one goal.

Three years later, the Sea Gulls returned to the title game and faced the Statesmen once again. Salisbury defeated Hobart 15-9 in that contest, capturing its first national championship. That also happened to be Hobart's last season in the Division III ranks.

To Berkman, that championship has always been special not just because it was the first, but also because of the team that it came against. The Gulls dethroned the 10-time champion, adding an extra measure of credibility to their accomplishment.

So if anyone can best understand the feelings of Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene following Wednesday's 11-9 victory over Salisbury in the NCAA quarterfinals, it's probably Berkman.

This one, said Cantabene, is a little more special.

"I think it does mean a little bit more to beat Salisbury," he said. "We're also trying to emulate what they're [doing]. They've won all those championships, and we want to be at the same level as them. So I think it means a little bit more to our guys to win this game."

Berkman was quick to give credit to the victors.

"They were well prepared and played extremely hard," Berkman said. "They were the better team today."

Now in his fifth season at Stevenson, Cantabene has the program perched on the doorstep. Five years ago, the roster featured just 17 players. Wednesday, the No. 1-ranked Mustangs had that many players dressed in street clothes and watching from the bleachers due to the postseason roster limits imposed by the NCAA.

The growth curve is on a steep rise.

Stevenson did all the things a team needs to do to dethrone a champion. Leading by two goals at halftime, they survived Salisbury's counterpunc. The Sea Gulls scored two quick goals to open the third quarter and forge a 5-5 tie, but the Mustangs answered with five straight goals of their own to regain momentum and seize control.

Stevenson's defense forced low-percentage shots from the alleys most of the day and goalie Geoff Hebert made all the key saves, including seven in the fourth quarter as the champs tried to rally once more.

"It's a great win for our program. Nobody's really beaten Salisbury...two times in a season," said Cantabene. "Nobody's knocked them out of the championship game for six or seven years. So this is nice for our program and nice for our kids who have worked so hard over the last five years to build this program."

The fact that the Mustangs and Sea Gulls became rivals in the Capital Athletic Confernece three years ago also helps to fuel a budding rivalry. Cantabene has a bit of the swagger of the younger brother who is finally getting the better of his older brother.

"We respect them, but sometimes, I think they don't respect us as much," said Cantabene. "So it means a little bit more to our guys to get that done. We're happy."

But not completely.

For the torch to be passed completely, Stevenson must now slay the South Region's other titan. The Mustangs host Gettysburg in Sunday's national semifinal, with the winner advancing to the Division III championship game in Foxborough on May 24.

Salisbury and Gettysburg have been the only two teams to represent the South in the championship game since 2001. A decade of dominance split between just two teams.

"It's always great to beat Salisbury, because they've been one of the best teams for a long time," said Stevenson senior Greg Furshman. "It's nice to play at their level. But the icing on the cake comes in two weeks if we're doing this in [Foxboro]."

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