March 5, 2012

Making Sense: Cantabene's Small College Conversion

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

When he first took over the Stevenson program, back in the fall of '04 when it was still known as Villa Julie, Paul Cantabene had some misgivings about abandoning his Division I career arc. Now that he has made the Mustangs a national power and himself into one of the prominent faces of Division III lacrosse, he has no regrets.

Paul Cantabene stood by himself on the side of the practice field, his arms crossed and his head bowed as he stared at the ground. The players on his team, a motley lacrosse bunch, had already migrated back to a makeshift area that constituted a locker room after the first day of fall ball back in 2004.

As much as Cantabene would have liked to mask what was running through his mind, had anyone been there, they would have known in an instant.

"I was thinking, 'What did I get myself into?' I had that first first practice, and it was on a slanted field and we didn't have locker rooms or uniforms and we had a budget of about $18,000 total," Cantabene said. "That's kind of how it went."

Just a year before, Cantabene was on staff at the University of Maryland, his third stop in a career that would undoubtedly procure him a Division I head job. He had worked at Towson and Johns Hopkins in the previous two stops, and his playing career at Loyola and in the professional ranks made him a household lacrosse name. While he played for Dave Cottle at Loyola and had a friendship with the coach, he had philosophical differences and was looking for a change.

About that time, he received a call from Tony Seaman, the Towson coach for whom Cantabene used to work. Seaman said there was a small college in Owings Mills, then known as Villa Julie, that was looking to get serious about lacrosse. Cantabene interviewed for the job and received the offer. His wife, Tracey, knew the school well. A former female athlete of the year at Villa Julie, she gave her husband the thumbs up for the move.

"She supported me because she just wanted me to be happy," Cantabene said. "When I got here and became head coach, I was just happier than the situation I was in."

Cantabene's vision for his new program, which metamorphosed from Villa Julie into Stevenson in 2008, was to treat his program like he would any Division I team but within the framework of the Division III structure. He wanted premium players who were willing to make a commitment to lacrosse, even when the sport was out of season.

"If some coach calls me and says, 'I've got a D-III kid for you,' that's the worst thing you can say," Cantabene said. "We're not interested. We want good players, not labeled Division III or Division I. We want coaches to say, 'We've got this really good player and this kid can be a baller.' Those are the types of kids we want."

That took a couple of years, however.

"All of our kids at Villa Julie at the time were not recruited by me and didn't take lacrosse seriously and were just happy to be here," Cantabene said of his first year. "We had 18 guys when I first got there in the fall and we couldn't afford to have anybody quit. We had to be a little more patient with the talent level and work with that and understand that we were moving forward. But a lot of them bought into what we asked them to do. Luckily, we are able to go 9-6 that first year somehow."

Each year since, the teams have improved, with a blend of four-year players and transfers who are attracted to Cantabene's divisional hybrid methodology. "We don't get turned down a lot," Cantabene said. "Kids talk to us. We want the best kids possible and it has worked out over the last four or five years."

With the evolution of the Mustangs, Cantabene is now just as familiar to a Division III fan as he was to Division I aficionados. He has evolved into one of the faces of the division, joining the likes of Berkman, Jancyk, Daly and others. He has even established the Cantabene coaching brand, which includes eclectic sideline apparel choices, such as garish flannel shirts and work boots.

On Saturday night, when Stevenson held on to beat Western New England, 6-4, Cantabene garnered his 100th win as a coach, becoming the second-fastest in Division III history to hit the century mark. He's also now third in the division in winning percentage (.769) among active coaches.

"I think there are a lot of great coaches, and I don't think that Division III gets the credit it deserves," Cantabene said. "There are a lot of great players who work really hard."

A championship has still eluded Cantabene and the Mustangs so far, but he has turned Stevenson into a national power that has managed to keep a Top 5 ranking despite graduating one of the most prolific classes in divisional history. And the slanted field he started on eight years ago has been replaced by a multi-million dollar stadium (with locker rooms) that he helped construct in his role as the associate AD for facilities.

While his playing and early coaching career will always keep Cantabene known as a "D-I guy," he has happily embraced the small college life.

"I never thought I'd be in Division III the way it started it, but I think it has been a great fit for me," Cantabene said. "I'm really happy where I am and I think Stevenson is a big part of that. It's really worked out."

Game Balls

Deven Alves, So., Attack – Mercyhurst
The Lakers only had two losses on their way to the national championship last spring, and Chestnut Hill was one of them. Behind Alves, who scored four goals and dished out two assists in the 17-5 romp, 'Hurst got revenge.

Brian Cannon, So., Attack – Dickinson
Cannon helped the Red Devils pull away from Montclair in the second half, scoring three goals and dishing out six assists in the 15-8 victory.

Tom Cullop, Jr., Middie – Catawba
Cullop paced the Indians with three goals and three assists. He also set up the game-winning goal late in Catawba's 15-13 road victory over Belmont Abbey.

Will Danoy, Sr., Attack – St. Vincent
Matching up with Marywood, one of the contenders out of the CSAC, Danoy scored three goals and set up a fourth, pacing the Bearcats to an 8-7 victory.

Josh Fagan, Fr., Attack – Concordia (Calif.)
The Eagles beat a pair of ranked teams over the weekend and the British Columbia native played a key role. He had three goals and two assists against No. 11. St. Mary's and five markers and two dimes vs. No. 23 Western Oregon.

Matt Giannelli, Jr., Attack – Virginia Tech
The Hokies put the hurt on Florida State on Saturday afternoon in Ponte Vedra, thanks to the play of Giannelli, who scored eight goals and set up a ninth in the 18-6 whitewash.

Brendan MacDonald, Fr., Attack – RIT
With the Tigers locked in tense affair with No. 11 Endicott, MacDonald came up big in his first collegiate game. He scored a pair of goals in the first half and then capped off the hat trick in the fourth quarter of the 11-8 win.

Mike Perlow, Jr., Midfield – Skidmore
The Thoroughbreds rallied from an early deficit, thanks to the play of Perlow. He netted six goals as Skidmore took the 14-10 victory in a game played in honor of former Bates student Morgan McDuffee.

Joe Vitale, Sr., Attack – Adelphi
In the opening game of the season against St. Rose, the Panthers scored 14 goals, and Vitale had a hand in 10 of them. He netted a hat trick and along with seven assists.

Dylan Westfall, Sr., Goalie – Arizona State
Not only did the senior have another strong day in net for the Sun Devils (tentatively credited with 11 saves), but he also scored a goal on an end-to-end rush in ASU's 9-8 win over Michigan State.

Power Fives

NCAA Division II
1. Mercyhurst (2-0) – The win over Chestnut Hill was impressive, but the Lakers are now in for a nasty, four-game stretch that includes two trips to NYC.
2. Adelphi (1-0) – Very few style points for the Panthers in the St. Rose win. I'm looking forward to the Dominican (Calif.) game next Sunday.
3. Limestone (6-0) – After breezing through the South region schedule so far, things will get interesting for the Saints on Saturday with Merrimack.
4. Dowling (2-0) – The Lions showed real nice balance in the Seton Hill win, with five different players scoring two goals.
5. Le Moyne (2-0) – The Spring Break trip to Colorado should be able to work on the kinks before the Adelphi game on St. Paddy's Day.

NCAA Division III
1. Salisbury (5-0) – The Sea Gulls can expect a steady dose of deliberate play from their opponents from now on after Gettysburg kept things interesting.
2. Tufts (0-0) – All five of the Jumbos' non-conference opponents have looked very good so far. Good thing their conference is so easy.
3. RIT (1-0) – I think we're going to appreciate the magnitude of the Endicott game more and more as the season matures.
4. Stevenson (3-0) – The Mustangs proved they could grind out a win with the triumph over Western New England. They can expect more of the same this week.
5. Cortland (2-0) – It would not surprise me at all if the final from Saturday's game against Gettysburg is 2-1.

MCLA Division I
1. Colorado State (3-0) – Rams head coach Alex Smith said he'll consider BYU the No. 1 team until CSU gets a shot at the Cougars.
2. UC Santa Barbara (5-0) – The first MCLA game I ever saw was UCSB vs. CSU at the "First 4" tourney in L.A. back in '05. Looking like a repeat in Greenville.
3. Cal Poly (5-1) – Really nice bounce-back win for the Mustangs against a semi-desperate Boston College squad. Duluth next weekend.
4. Brigham Young (5-1) – It doesn't get much bigger than New Mexico and BYU in a Friday night RMLC showdown. Oh, wait. Yes it does.
5. Chapman (6-2) – The Panthers get back into The Fives after holding off Boston College. Good to see Chapman finally finish a game strong.

MCLA Division II
1. Davenport (2-1) – The interesting thing about the 27-1 win over Northern Michigan is it.
2. Dayton (5-0) – Gotta question the three-week break between the Kennesaw sleep-walk and Briarcliffe on March 17.
3. St. Thomas (2-0) – I sometimes forget just how young the Tommies are this year. They are going to be frightening in '13.
4. Westminster (5-0) – The Griffins had a respectable performance against NCAA Division II Dominican (Calif.). Then they pounded MCLA D-I Montana, 15-8.
5. Grand Valley State (2-0) – Hopefully Coast Guard and St. John's can put up more of a fight than the Lakers' first two opponents.

Monday Notebooks

NCAA Division II: Dowling had their first successful "business trip" of the season, although it wasn't easy.
NCAA Division III: Brendan Gorman's culture change at Babson is starting to pay dividends.
MCLA Division I: Don't expect UC Santa Barbara's Mike Allan to get too giddy about the Poly win.
MCLA Division II: Concordia is about to enter it's crucible, but Will McMinn feels his team is ready for it.

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