May 17, 2013

NCAA Division III Semifinal Breakdown

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Eric Kluge and the rest of the Salisbury squad will be looking for a way to avenge their mid-season loss to Stevenson as well as making the program's 15th appearance in the NCAA national championship game.

The root of the rivalries isn't hard to find. Two schools residing in the same state, located just over 100 miles away from each and with a rich history of competition. But is there another component?

When Stevenson hosts Salisbury and Cortland entertains RIT, could there be some recruiting repercussions, as well? From what the coaches are saying, there are mixed messages with the Sea Gulls and Mustangs while there is a mild consensus between the Tigers and Red Dragons.

"I wouldn't say a whole lot," said Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman of his recruiting competition, or lack there of, with Stevenson. "Let's say once and a while we bump heads."

"We recruit a lot against Salisbury," countered Stevenson head man Paul Cantabene. "We have a lot of the same kids. We compete against Salisbury a lot for transfers, in-state kids and out of state kids."

The perspective might be a tad muddied among the coaches in the South final, but the North finalists appear to be on the same page.

"He has a number of upstate New York kids that we looked at, so I would say that we banged heads for probably three or four kids a year," Cortland head coach Steve Beville said. "Not a lot."

"Out of the hundreds that you start with, [three or four] sounds about right. There aren't many," added RIT skipper Jake Coon. "I would say besides a few upstate New York kids, it's minimal. Their school is so much different than ours."

Coon's coda is an underlying theme when analyzing the recruiting wars between the schools. While all four institutions are similar in their lacrosse success, all of the coaches pinpoint the differences between the schools and what they offer. Whether it's public vs. private, liberal arts vs. targeted curriculum, etc., there are plenty of differences.

If you take out the head-to-head competition for recruiting and talk about attracting kids in general terms, there are differing opinions about whether a semifinal victory will have a lasting impact on a prospective student-athlete's decision making.

"It's another carrot that you've got in front of somebody: that you've been to a championship and won a championship," Berkman said. "We're fortunate. We been there 14 times and we've won 10 national championships. If a recruit comes into your office and sees the picture of the 10 rings and the guys celebrating, it definitely gets people thinking a little bit. Kids want to go where you've got a chance."

"Anytime you win, you can say to a kid, 'Hey, head-to-head, we beat them,' so it might help in that aspect," Cantabene said. "But overall, I don't think it is."

Said Beville: "If a kid wants engineering, he's going to RIT, regardless of who wins the game. If a kid is looking for majors that we have that [others] may not have, he's going to be looking here. Whoever has the right academic program fit is going to have the advantage. That's always going to be No. 1. No. 2, it could be style of play or coaches or whatever, but I don't think there are major implications with a loss concerning where a kid chooses to go."

"Anytime you are playing in the NCAA tournament and going deep in the NCAA tournament, kids are taking notice of that," Coon said. "Cortland, Tufts and Salisbury have been able to benefit from that for years. That's why they are consistently in the Top 5. It makes a huge difference. I haven't been able to get to the big stage here, but at Naz, we consistently had players of that caliber in the late '90s. To the victors go the spoils."

Emotional Rescue

When there's a ticket to the national championship on the line, the need for motivational speeches will be at a minimum this weekend, especially with the rivalries involved. Emotions already will be running high leading up to the opening draw.

Are the four coaches embracing this high energy atmosphere or are they trying to down play it with their guys?

"We talked about it quite a bit going into this last game against Tufts," Coon said. "We had a lot of energy throughout most of the game, especially in the first half; we were firing on all cylinders. Just playing with a great energy level. But you have to keep it in check. There were moments in the game when we were being a little bit fancy, trying to skip the ball through the defense or throwing backhanded passes. They started to feel good and get out of their element. The best way to put it is, I'd rather play with too much energy and have to settle down as opposed to coming out flat and needing to get them going."

Beville won't be shying away from getting his guys amped up to play the Tigers, however.

"We absolutely play it up because that's why they came here," he said. "We tell the guys, 'When you come to Cortland, you're going to be playing in big games.' Those are the expectations, and the guys that we want are the guys who want to play in national title games and final four games like this one with RIT. If you're not looking for that kind of pressure and don't want to play in those kinds of games, this is not the place for you. We absolutely play it up."

Cantabene is thinking along the same lines as Beville.

"We're not going to downplay it," he said. "It's all mental. If your kids are ready to show up and play, you'll be fine. If they're not, then that's different. If they're in it, and they understand what's going on, that's good. If they are a little out of it and not all there? Then there's a problem. We've been a mentally tough team all year and I expect us to continue to do that."

Berkman isn't afraid of letting his kids get juiced up, but he might have to pull on the reins on a little bit.

"The only concern we have with emotion in this game is we don't want it to be too much," Berkman said. "Over-emotion causes mistakes. We'll have emotion to play really well and to play hard, but we don't need that extra emotion that leads to late hits and stupid decisions and tunnel-vision and all of those other things that keep you from having the opportunity to win. We've got to make this group understand it a little bit better because in the first game [with Stevenson], we had several penalties that were the result of over-aggression. We cannot have that in this game."

RIT (18-2) at Cortland (19-0), 1 p.m.

Finding an answer for Cortland's Joe Slavik will be priority No. 1 for RIT, but the Tigers have some of their own weapons to challenge the Red Dragons.
© Bill Danielewski

In the wake of RIT's loss to Cortland on March 27, Tigers' head coach Jake Coon knew he needed to have a talk with his kids. A lot of coaches might have used the opportunity to play up the positives, especially since RIT took the No. 1 team in the country to double overtime before bowing, 12-11.

Coon wasn't interested in the niceties.

"We had a lengthy meeting after the first game because I feel like, to an extent, we played not to lose. And we lost," Coon said. "As opposed to playing to win and being as confident as we could be, we took a step back and were nervous in overtime. Now, we are at a different point in the season. Our guys, no matter the situation, are comfortable and confident."

The Tigers have not lost since that game, rattling off 12-straight wins, including Wednesday's flattening of their postseason nemesis, Tufts. Coon generously refers to the Tufts win as a "perfect storm" of faceoff wins, ground balls and solid defense, but there's far more to this RIT team at this point in the season.

"They are averaging 17 goals a game over the last three weeks, so they are playing very well right now," Beville said. "They are very dynamic on offense and they've found a great rhythm. And a couple of kids have stepped up for them who weren't playing at the beginning of the year. They are a load to handle, that's for sure."

The Red Dragons haven't been playing too shabby, themselves. Coon readily admits that his team is the underdog in this matchup. "The D-III national championship goes through Cortland these days," he said.

Cortland enters the game after a comfortable, 12-7 win over Western New England in the quarters. The score looks broad enough, but the game was tied 3-3 early and it looked like the Red Dragons might be in for a long slog. Beville credits the narrow victories this season as a key in pulling away.

"They game-planned it up. They played some zone and some shutoff with the shorties and different things to take us out of rhythm," said Beville of Western New England tactics. "But the guys have been there before. We've had three or four overtime games this year and a lot of close games, so I think that served us well."

So who's going to win? All of the primary predictors that I use – faceoffs, goaltending, momentum, etc. – are pretty much a wash between these two. RIT is a devastating extra man (58%) team, which could very well come into play, although Cortland doesn't take a lot of penalties. The Red Dragons? Well, they haven't lost, so there's that.

Calling this one will boil down to who would I rather have right now: Cody Consul (28g, 23a), Joe Slavik (30g, 26a) and Mike Kaminski (64.4 sv%, 5.74 GAA) or Jack Krzyston (46g, 25a), Kyle Aquin (54g, 8a) and Pat Johnston (65.1 sv%, 6.81 GAA)?

Eye of the Tiger, by a whisker.

Prediction: RIT, 11-9.

Salisbury (17-5) at Stevenson (20-2), 7 p.m.

It's kind of tough to really appreciate what Salisbury is accomplishing as it is occurring in real time, but what should be the Sea Gulls' narrative to this point?

"We've had a few bumps along the road this year, but in those bumps on the road, there was never a point when the staff or the players believed that we couldn't have won or shouldn't have won," Berkman said. "With the goalie we have and the defense that we play, we can beat anybody. If our goalie is on, and our defense is playing well and we're not giving up transition goals, we're a tough out. I don't think anyone is second guessing as to whether we have enough talent or our game plan. The kids believe in who we are and what we've got to do."

It makes for a taut script, but this isn't a Sea Gulls team that has been riding the same guys all spring. Cantabene watches tape from the April 3 game between the two teams and wonders what squad he's watching.

"They're so different," Cantabene says. "The [Jesse] Rabishaw kid and the [Brady] Dashiell kid are playing a lot and they've got [Tyler] Smith and [Eric] Kluge playing together. When we played them earlier in the year, they didn't do that. They've got a lot of new guys playing. The first film we watched, we saw some of the tendencies of these guys and what they do, but in the last two games, there are brand new guys, so we have to see what their tendencies are."

"We are a dramatically different team than when we played before," admitted Berkman. "Look who's playing on attack, who's playing on second midfield. That's a lot of different than what we were before. Whether it's good or bad, we're definitely different."

Um, I'll go with good. In the span of four days, Salisbury has gone on the road and defeated a grizzled W&L squad and then dropped the No. 1 team in the South, Dickinson, on Wednesday. Yup, things are going good. There might not have been as much personnel turnover for Stevenson, but the Mustangs have a different look, as well.

"They have the same defense, the same first midfield line, the same four attackmen, but they are better now than they were then," Berkman said of Stevenson. "You can sense that a lot of them are playing with a lot of confidence."

"I think we're doing a good job," said Cantabene. "All of the games up until the second half with WAC and the Lynchburg game, we didn't think we played a complete game. We didn't play a complete game in those either, but we're getting closer. Earlier in the year, we got away with a lot of individual stuff and still won some games. Now we're doing a much better job playing as a team and understanding each other's weaknesses and strengths."

So whose strengths and weakness will determine the outcome? Actually, it doesn't really matter. It boils down to convincing myself that there is any possibility of Salisbury losing this game. It seems like such a no-brainer. A fait accompli, to borrow a phrase from my British readers. The Sea Gulls never lose these games.


Prediction: Stevenson, 11-7.

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