May 29, 2011

Bradman, Mendes Stand Out Among Sea Gulls Redeemed

by Joel Censer | | NCAA Championship Sunday Blog Replay

Tony Mendes, once a promising Division I prospect and U.S. U19 star, never got untracked at Maryland or Syracuse. The converted midfielder found a niche on Salisbury's attack and finished with four goals Sunday in the Sea Gulls' 19-7 blowout of Tufts in the Division III championship game.

© Greg Wall

BALTIMORE -- Watching Salisbury dominate Tufts in the NCAA Division III men's lacrosse championship game Sunday, it was impossible not to notice the Sea Gulls' high-powered, explosive offense. Salisbury's 19 goals alone told much of the story, but did not say as much about how easy it looked for the Sea Gulls.

Sam Bradman scored a record seven goals, some of the SportsCenter-inspiring variety. Tony Mendes, a former U.S. U19 star and well-traveled transfer (via Division I powerhouses Maryland and Syracuse) finished with four goals and an assist. Salisbury junior lefty attackman Matt Cannone was crafty around the cage, scoring two goals, including a beautiful catch-and-shoot finish on the crease for the Sea Gulls' second goal of the day.

The offensive fireworks not only carried Salisbury to its first national championship since 2008, but also helped many of the Sea Gulls find redemption. In last year's NCAA final, a senior-laden Tufts defense made Salisbury's half-field offense look all but pedestrian in the Jumbos' 9-6 victory.

Reflecting back on that game, Bradman said Sunday he thought Salisbury's 2010 version just wasn't patient enough or unselfish enough against Tufts' quick-sliding defense.

"We were trying to make plays happen way too early. Everybody was trying to make the skip pass, make the big play the first time," Bradman said. "This time we were making that extra second and third pass and getting close to the net."

There were plenty of message board critics of Bradman's 2010 performance against Tufts. He had five turnovers and took seven shots, and yet managed just one assist that day. The rumblings about Salisbury's impotent half-field offense continued in 2011, reaching a fever pitch after the Sea Gulls failed to reach double digits against defensive-oriented teams like Gettysburg, Washington and Lee,and Ohio Wesleyan at the beginning of the season.

But Salisbury kept working, integrating new players and getting increased production from others. California native and crease finisher Erik Krum, who didn't play in 2010 after a fall ball injury, began to find his legs and role in the offense. Cannone got a step quicker, especially with the ball.

Bradman fought through an early concussion and ankle injury that limited him in the middle of the season. Against Stevenson in the CAC final, Bradman led Salisbury past its conference rival with three goals and two assists. He then dropped three big goals on Endicott in the NCAA tournament's first round. And in a way that elite players often do, the junior middie saved his best moments for the most the important time of the season.

His seven goals against Tufts came in a variety of forms, whether on the run with either his left or right hand, stepping into a space or finishing off-ball (like he did when he caught a Cannone give-and-go pass one-handed).

Salisbury 19, Tufts 7

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"Bradman's unbelievable," Mendes said. "By far the best player in the country. That kid pulls out moves -- in games, in practice -- I've never seen done before."

Of course, Bradman had plenty of help. The two-man games Bradman ran up top with linemates Shawn Zordani and Ryan Clarke were the perfect antidote to Tufts' decision not to slide off Cannone down low.

Not to mention Mendes. The former Division I star was a prized recruit coming out of East Chapel Hill (N.C.) High School, known for his turbo jets and ability to turn the corner. With Mendes being able to consistently generate offense, the North Carolina native took some dodging pressure off of Bradman and Zordani.

That doesn't mean it came easy for Mendes. He had to overcome lingering sympyoms of a knee injury that prevented him from ever suiting up for Syracuse, the second stop of his college career. Having been a split-dodging midfielder at Maryland, the junior also had to learn an entirely different position when he was bumped down to attack for Salisbury.

"It took Tony a lot, how to step into gaps and to read slides... But you could see the light was starting to go off. He was going to get better," said Sea Gulls head coach Jim Berkman. "And the last five or six weeks, we've been scoring."

Mendes, after those quick pit stops in College Park and Syracuse, seems happy just to have another opportunity to play the game again.

"It was a long road," said Mendes. "I've been through ups and down at Maryland and at 'Cuse. I really wouldn't ask for it any other way. I've learned so much. Just the fact that I got an opportunity to come here and we played so well today, I'm so grateful."

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