May 26, 2013

NCAA Division III Championship Breakdown

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Mark Pannenton leads Stevenson with 57 goals this year, one of the many weapons the Mustangs boast. "Their attackmen can score goals whenever they feel like it and their midfield has four or five guys who are scoring a lot of points," said RIT head coach Jake Coon.

The NCAA's baby brother doesn't always have the most compelling championship games, especially with Salisbury running roughshod over the competition for the past two seasons, but the RIT-Stevenson clash could steal the show this weekend in Philadelphia.

The plotlines are numerous, including two teams that have tapped out deep in the tournament in years past, but finally got over the hump this year to make their first appearance in the national title game. This is also a rematch of February clash between the two teams.

Those are all well and good, but it's the brashness of the two programs that sets this one apart. Stevenson's attitude is shaped by their head coach, Paul Cantabene, who has supreme confidence in his abilities and that of his players, and it's why he continually attempts to get any good team that will play him on the schedule. The players have adopted his take-on-all-comers approach, and it can be seen in their play, as the Mustangs have innate ability to play whatever style their opponents want to adopt.

RIT's brashness was on display against Cortland, as they used a flip play in overtime to confuse the Red Dragons goalie and score the winning goal. The play itself was nothing new to lacrosse, but the fearlessness to do it in the second most important game of the season in extra time points to a team that does not fear the moment. The Canadian-infused way that they approach the offensive end is also extremely fan-friendly.

Each coach knows about the other team's strengths, which will also make this an interesting chess match.

"We tell everyone that we talk to that we think RIT is the best team we played all year," Cantabene said. "They are very good in their style they play. They have a lot of tough kids and they play the game the right way. They get up and down. They're not cheap, they just play hard. I think they are a great team."

One of the challenges facing Cantabene's staff is containing the Tigers' offense. They did a relatively decent job in the first meeting, which the Mustangs won, 12-11 in overtime, but that was also RIT's first game of the season. Plus, there's no other team comparable on Stevenson's schedule.

"Nobody attacks the way they do," Cantabene said. "They have two-man games on the side and that Canadian style of attack. They really go with it. They have unusual stuff that no one else is doing and it's very difficult to prepare for."

Coming out on the losing end in the first matchup has given RIT a healthy respect for Stevenson.

"Their attackmen can score goals whenever they feel like it and their midfield has four or five guys who are scoring a lot of points," Coon said. "Their defense is big, rangy, with really skilled kids who like to pressure you and make you make decisions. They have the same guys, but I'm sure they are more mature, just like we are at this point."

"They are big, athletic kids," said RIT sophomore midfielder Kyle Aquin. "They were very composed on the field. They had big-time guys who were prepared for big games. Going into this weekend they'll be a well-prepared team and a tough one to beat."

As I look at this game, both of them are going to be tough to beat. When skimming for weaknesses, both have goalies who are in their first year as full-time starters, but RIT's Pat Johnston and Stevenson's Dimitri Pecunes have played very well in the postseason. Numbers-wise, the Mustangs have the better faceoff unit, led by the two-headed monster of Brent Hiken and Sam Wyatt, who have helped their team win nearly 70 percent of the draws. Tyler Brooks-Lambert is no slouch for the Tigers, however, and went 15-for-21 against Cortland last weekend.

Perhaps what makes me the most excited about this game – and why I think it will be the gem of Philadelphia – is I can see either team winning by a variety of scores. So, despite the game occurring three months ago, I'm going to default to the first contest.

Prediction: Stevenson, 12-11 (ot).

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