May 14, 2014

MD3 Quarterfinals: Breakdown & Predictions

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Stephen Banick (above) wasn't part of last year's Stevenson win over Washington College, but he'll play a key role if the Mustangs want to keep their drive for a repeat alive. (John Strohsacker)

The mythical beast known as 'Parity' was spotted briefly last year when half the quarterfinalists in the men's Division III tournament had at least four losses, including a pair of teams with five and – gasp! – even one with six. Parity has run for the hills this year, however, as just the cream will be on display on Wednesday.

There are no four-loss teams remaining in the field and only two teams – Union and Cortland – have as many as three. For the most part, the brackets have yielded the top teams in the country to this point. Last year the combined winning percentage of the quarterfinalists was 84.8. This spring we're up to 92.3 percent.

The clock has long since struck midnight for Cinderella.

As such, we have four heavyweight contests awaiting us on Wednesday.

It's been a bit of a tradition to breakdown the games in the Division III tournament and predict the winners. Some of my estimations have played out nicely and others have done nothing but provide fuel for the underdogs. Here's what I've got for this quarterfinal round.

Cortland (17-3) at Tufts (18-2), 3:30 p.m.

Can a pair of teams have a rivalry if they only meet in the postseason?

It's debatable, especially since the Red Dragons and Jumbos have only met three times in the tournament, but with the two programs paired up again for the fourth time in the last five years, it certainly has the feel of a rivalry.

"They have been at the top of Division III, so obviously it's going to be a natural rivalry when you see them at the end of the year," said Cortland head coach Steve Beville. "It's fun to play Tufts. They are a real good team."

"I think it's why we play our schedule – we need that edge when we step on the field because we know our opponent is going to be very good," said Tufts head coach Mike Daly. "Being able to coach against guys like Steve Beville, who we have a lot of respect for, is just fun. It's a fun day."

The genesis of the micro-rivalry, if you will, was back in 2010 when an underdog Tufts team went up to Cortland and posted a stunning, 10-9 victory. It was a debutante moment for the Jumbos, and one that they parlayed into a national championship later that spring. The two team met again the following year, this time in Medford, and Tufts won again by the same score. In 2012, Cortland finally chalked up a win at home, 12-10. The last two meetings produced the national runners-up.

What has helped make this an immediate rivalry is the contrasting styles, and that hasn't changed this year. Tufts is a wide open team that boasts four players with at least 85 points, led by John Uppgren (56g, 55a), while Cortland generates its success from the defensive end, anchored by goalie Scott Tota (6.58 GAA, 60.3 sv%).

When Daly looks at Cortland, he sees their coach.

"It's fun to see the reflection of guys I know so well in their teams," Daly said. "They are just a tough, Steve Beville team. They ride hard, they're scrappy and they keep battling. We could have put them away in 2012, but we couldn't get goals and we couldn't get things going, and they kept coming. They always battle."

From Beville's perspective, this game will likely live up to the rivalry that has been established because a lot of the players have gone through the crucible of postseason competition before.

Does Mike Cantelli (above) and Cortland have the offensive juice to keep up with Tufts?(John Strohsacker)

"One of the big factors at this time of the year is having been there and having played in finals and semifinals and big games in the regular season over the past couple of years," he said. "A lot of times, that's a big factor as you get deeper in the year."

For all of the high-scoring similarities with years past, Tufts is a much different team than last year. The Jumbos have found a strong faceoff man in sophomore Conor Helfrich (58.5 FO%) after getting mauled at the position (45.7% as a team) last spring, and senior goalie Patton Watkins has found a rhythm after some turbulent times in the previous two seasons. Those two positions should help Tufts avoid the type train wreck that happened last year in the quarterfinals against RIT.

With the exception of the first midfield line of Mike Cantelli, Matt Rakoczy and Joe Slavik, along with Tota, Cortland has been reshaping itself for much of the season. Seniors Mike Warner and Stephen Burke have been thrust into starting roles on defense despite not starting a game before while juniors Matt Savlov and Benjamin Dunlavey are trying to complement leading scorer Zach Hopps (28g, 40a) up front. Everything appears to have fallen into place for the postseason, however.

In predicting a winner in this game, we have to determine whose strength is weaker and whose weakness is stronger, because they will be going head-to-head all day long. The battle of strengths – Cortland's defense versus the Tufts offense – is tough to call. Other than getting roasted by RIT (join the club), the Red Dragons backline has been stout, with the other two losses coming in relatively low-scoring affairs to Lynchburg (10-9 OT) and Stevenson (9-8). With the exception of the early-season Stevenson conflict (15-9) and a curious setback to Williams (15-8), the Tufts frontline has embarrassed a lot of good defensive teams. We'll call this a push.

So what happens when the Cortland offense is pitted against the Jumbos backline? This is where we get some separation, and it favors the Dragons. While there has been a dropoff in production by Cody Consul this spring, Hopps and the rugged first midfield line has carried the load. More importantly, Slavik appears to be rounding into form after getting injuried against RIT. The Tufts defense relies excessively on Watkins as the quest for turnovers occasionally leaves him on an island, but he could be the guy to swing things in the Jumbos' favor.

This game will ebb and flow like in the past, but in the end, it'll be Cortland advancing, and tying this postseason rivalry at two games apiece, 11-10.

Union (15-3) at RIT (19-0), 4 p.m.

There is only one conference with two teams left in the tournament, and the Liberty League's strength will be on full display as the Dutchmen and Tigers meet again for a third time this spring. With the exception of the epic season-opener against Stevenson, RIT's two toughest games of the season – an 8-7 win and a 13-11 victory – have come against Union. That doesn't necessarily mean this is the match-up that Paul Wehrum has been craving.

Kyle McQuiggan (left) and Stefan Basile (right) will be the last line of defense for Union as they hope to end RIT's seemingly unstoppable journey to the national championship game. (Union Athletics)

"I'm glad we played them in two tough games, but I'd rather be playing anybody than RIT in this game because of that familiarity. I'd love to be playing Cortland or Tufts," said the Union head coach. "I'm very excited to be at this point; I'm just glad to be part of the ride."

Playing the Dutchmen for a shot at the semifinals is both a blessing and a curse for RIT.

"There is the good and bad factor," Tigers head coach Jake Coon said. "When you're playing a team that you beat twice, they are going to come in really fired up, although I don't think anyone is going come into the quarterfinals flat. But the guys know that they can beat them and they shouldn't have any reservations about that. If we come out and play our best, we know we can get the job done. It's just going to take a great effort, great execution and a complete team effort."

The first two meetings played out eerily similar. Union scored the first goal in each, only to see RIT bury the next three and take a comfortable lead into halftime. The Dutchmen rallied in the second half to get within striking distance, only to fall one (8-7 in the first meeting) or two (13-11 in the second) goals short.

Where the games differed – and what makes RIT so dangerous – is who did the scoring for the Tigers. In the first game, it was Eddie Kiesa (3g) and Taylor Wisman (3g) doing the damage, while in the second match-up it was Jack Krzyston (3g, 1a) and Kyle Aquin (3g) leading the way. When you consider that RIT's three leading scorers – Ryan Lee, Casey Jackson and Allistar Warren – were secondary factors in both contests, it gives you an indication of what opposing defenses are faced with.

"Our guys learned from the first go around," Coon said. "We were able to get in tight and get some shots on a great goalie. They are definitely stingy and one of the best defenses we've seen all season. They do a really good job of limiting our strengths and we have to get creative and create some opportunities, transition in particular. Coach Wehrum always has those guys fired up."

Union's goalie, Stefan Basile, is one of the top netminders in the country, and his 16 saves in the first game was a key part of the Dutchmen keeping that one as close as it was. He should be a constant. But the hidden stat that will have to be cleaned up if Union wants a chance at the upset of the year is on the clear. In the first two games, the Dutchmen were running at just over 70 percent – a suicidal number against a team as deadly as RIT.

To be honest, there aren't a lot of aspects of the game or positions on the field where RIT doesn't have an advantage. They should win the game just on that. But, as Coon alluded to above, Wehrum is a master motivator. The fact that the Dutchmen are playing for their teammate, Nate Greenberg, creates a different dynamic, and should be of great concern to RIT.

Can Wehrum tap into something new or more powerful for this third meeting to flip a seemingly intractable script?

"I can find something. I read enough books," Wehrum said with a laugh. "Honestly, what I told the guys is it's not about the Xs and Os, it's about the Robby Santangelos and Stefan Basiles. I love lacrosse because it is free flowing and it's up to the kids. I haven't scored a goal in 40 years. There is nothing that I could say or do. It's about the young men who are on the field representing their colleges."

Union will have the emotional edge, but it's all RIT in every other facet. Tigers, 14-11.

The match-up between Salisbury and Denison appears to be as even as it gets, but could the experience of senior goalie Alex Taylor (above) be the difference? (Kevin P. Tucker)

Denison (19-0) at Salisbury (19-1), 7 p.m.

The last time that Mike Caravana brought a Denison team to Salisbury for an NCAA playoff game, it was in 2001 for the second round. And despite losing to the Sea Gulls in triple overtime during the regular season, the Big Red handled Salisbury, 11-6. It was the last time the Gulls didn't advance to at least the quarterfinals in the tourney.

Is that a good omen for the Big Red?

"It's so long ago," Caravana said on the bus ride down to Salisbury. "Every team is different and Salisbury is a handful to play whenever you play them. They are very strong at home. We have to approach it the best we can. We'll see how we do."

The undefeated Big Red are certainly not being overlooked by Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman.

"I think in terms of lacrosse IQ, they are one of the best teams I've seen just in regards to recognizing situations," Berkman said. "They are very opportunistic in taking advantage of advantages. That's the one thing that stands out watching them play: their ability to take the smallest mistake by their opponent and capitalize on it."

Denison intelligence quotient will have to grapple with a roster that holds very few weaknesses.

"What makes them special is players one-through-three on attack and one-through-six in the midfield and one-through-three on defense are all very strong," Caravana said. "There isn't a drop off across the board in the talent level and that's the strength of their team, more so than just having someone like Sam Bradman. They are just good everywhere."

While the Big Red have yet to feel defeat, Salisbury has its one quirky loss to Christopher Newport on its resume after the Captains confounded the Gulls with a zone in an 8-7 upset. It's something that has shaped the way a lot of opponents have attacked the Gulls, but it hasn't worked since.

"We're not a bad zone team now," Berkman said. "York played some zone, but they are not a zone team, so that causes some problems, too. Are we going to see some zone if we invert? Yes, because that's what Denison does. I doubt they are going to throw a zone at us for 60 minutes because that hasn't been their style. I don't think at this point a coach is going to reinvent the wheel because it puts doubt in the players' minds."

When Caravana analyzes Salisbury, he doesn't see very many similarities with teams Denison has seen before this season.

"Salisbury has its own style of play given the level of athlete that they have," he said. "They certainly appear to be the strongest team defensively we've played so far. If you look at their scorers, I think they are very consistent. Defense is the strength of their team, but they have opportunistic scorers to allow them to be one of the top teams in the country. It's going to be a big challenge for us, but we're looking forward to the level of competition."

When looking for individual match-up advantages, there aren't very many. Denison's Eric Baumgardner and Salisbury's Chris Biank will likely cancel each other out on faceoffs, producing something close to a push. Two of the best long-stick middies in the country will be on display with the Gulls' Zeke Smith and the Red's Austin Campbell. At first blush, senior Alex Taylor's big-game experience in goal appears to be a significant check mark for Salisbury, but sophomore Clark Bullington has already been named the MVP of the NCAC tournament and is carving out a nice little reputation for himself.

On the field, this game is a toss-up. That means we have to look at the details, and Salisbury's home field advantage combined with Denison's nine-hour bus ride – the Big Red were 15 miles short of the 500 needed for a flight – might be the difference. Denison has done it before this season, but it's one of the few separation points between the teams.

Salisbury, 9-8.

The battle between Washington College's Michael Trapp (above) and Stevenson faceoff ace Brent Hiken will be a key ingredient in the grudge match between the Shoremen and Mustangs. (Kevin P. Tucker)

Washington College (17-1) at Stevenson (19-2), 7 p.m.

The last time that the Shoremen and the Mustangs met, it was the second round of last year's tournament, and it was a wild affair. The Shoremen took 16 penalties (of the 26 called during the game) and were outshot, 59-38, but still led by a goal, 13-12, with seven minutes left to go in the contest.

Stevenson managed to score on four of the 13 extra man opportunities they were given, which ended up being the difference in the eventual 17-13 victory for the 'Stangs. Washington College head coach Jeff Shirk certainly remembers the game, but he's not about to let it bleed into this year's rematch.

"If you allow yourself to be sucked into that, you are not going to be allowed to play your game," Shirk said. "We're going to worry about us and not the other stuff. We're not going to worry about what penalties are called, or what aren't called. Or what shenanigans are going on around the stadium. We're just going to try to give our best effort. We had them for 53 minutes last year, and then let it slip away. They were the better team, but I think our guys are motivated."

A lot of things change in a year, and Stevenson head coach Paul Cantabene sees differences between last year's Shoremen edition and this spring's version.

"Last year they had more of an offensive mindset from the attack position," Cantabene said. "Even though they have a good attack this year, they are much deeper and faster at the midfield. They have four really good middies who can go to the goal. They play a little better defense, their goalie is another year seasoned and they have a great faceoff guy. They are doing a lot great things, so we're going to have to play well in order to beat them."

From Shirk's perspective, nothing has changed.

"They are the same. They are big, they are athletic and they are going to try to intimidate you," he said. "You are going to have to deal with the atmosphere, too."

There are a lot of compelling subplots in this game, but perhaps the best one will be on display at the opening whistle. Stevenson's Brent Hiken (71.6 FO%) is the most notable faceoff man in the country after being selected early in the MLL draft, but WAC's draw man, Michael Trapp, is at the same level (69.6). The two battled to a near-draw last year, but the match-up still impacted the arc of the game.

"We ended up 50-50 at the end of the game, but Trapper won a lot of them early and we got up early, and then we weren't as successful late, and they came back," Shirk said. "Anytime you can win faceoffs and take possessions away or kill momentum if you get a goal scored against you, that's important."

While not in the same head-to-head nature as the FOGOs, Washington's Ted DiSalvo and Stevenson's Dmitri Pecunes are All-American-caliber netminders who could be the key to the game. One of the hidden match-ups that is worth keeping an eye on is the Mustangs' LSM contingent of Ryan Rubenstein and Josh Rufolo against the stacked WAC midfield unit. Cantabene pinpointed Rubenstein and Rufolo as key factors in the impressive win over Cabrini.

"[Callum] Robinson, [Kyle] Holecheck and Dmitri [Pecunes] get so much of the publicity that those guys are forgotten, and those two guys were men controlling the Cabrini midfielders," Cantabene said. "They were the unsung heroes."

Playing well at Stevenson is as much about handling the circus-like atmosphere that Cantabene has created. Shirk said that he expects the home team to follow all of the protocols set out in the NCAA handbook, including neutral-toned announcers and the prohibition of artificial noise-makers (such as, say, a fog horn). But gamesmanship is just part of the equation. The defending champs are loaded again and playing very well, regardless of all the other stuff.

Against any other team, Trapp and DiSalvo could be the difference, but the weight of the Mustangs pressure will eventually prove too much.

Stevenson, 15-12.

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