December 16, 2013

MD3 Notebook: Stevenson Embracing Big Events

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Stevenson head coach Paul Cantabene is trying to show that Division III has as good of a product as the big boys. "We're letting people know, and that's a great thing," he said.
© John Strohsacker

It's a Division I world, right? Maybe, but Stevenson head coach Paul Cantabene isn't about to cede the issue. He thinks Division III is where the action's at. And, with the right circumstances, lacrosse's last child can entertain the most hardened scholarship fans.

And he's willing to put the Mustangs' money where his mouth is.

Stevenson will be involved in two of the most high-profile events of 2014. It starts in the second game of the year on Feb. 22 when the Mustangs make the six-hour drive due north for a rematch of the '13 national championship tilt with RIT. The game will be played in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse University, part of a tripleheader with the Orange playing Maryland and Cornell facing off with Hobart.

A month later, Cantabene will introduce something that rarely occurs in Division III: a two-day in-season event featuring some of the premier teams in the country. The first-ever "Mustang Classic" will bring Cortland, Nazareth and Lynchburg – a trio of teams likely to be near the top of the preseason national rankings – to Owings Mills on March 21-22. Cortland-Lynchburg and Stevenson-Nazareth highlight Friday's action while Nazareth-Lynchburg and Stevenson-Cortland will round out the affair on Saturday.

"One of the things I'm trying to do is have bigger events in Division III," Cantabene said. "That's why I'm having the Mustang Classic at our place with those teams coming in. Going up [to Syracuse] is also a great venue and a chance to really enhance Division III lacrosse.

"There are some great teams in Division III and I think we play a better brand of lacrosse than maybe the Division I guys do; it's more action-packed. But a lot of people don't know how great our game is right now. There are better and better players coming to Division III and we've got a high level of lacrosse. We should promote it. We're letting people know, and that's a great thing."

These kinds of boasts might ring hollow from a lot of small school coaches, but not from Cantabene. His Division I credentials are impeccable, accentuated by international and professional experience. His words hold weight. The fact he thinks the Division III game is on par with, if not better, than the big boys' version in terms of excitement should provide impetus for other teams to create marquee events.

Admittedly, this is somewhat easier said than done. Coaches are often loath to play two games in one weekend if they have a choice and scheduling is not as easy as it seems. But these events have been fruitful in the past. Three Rochester area teams – RIT, St. John Fisher and Nazareth – hosted three Commonwealth Coast Conference squads – Western New England, Endicott and Roger Williams – in the two-day Coaches vs. Cancer Flower City Cup last March. This year, Cabrini will play Gettysburg in a critical regional game on March 15 in the afternoon, and then the Cavaliers' home field will play host to the Nazareth-Bowdoin game at 7 p.m. in a spicy, bi-regional doubleheader.

These high-profile multi-game Division III events coincide with a landscape devoid of notable D-I extravaganzas. There had been a trend of large NFL-type stadiums hosting two or three compelling Division I contests in a day, and, in the past, there had been two of these productions in a single season. Those have vanished this spring, leaving a void that the Mustang Classic is more than willing to fill.

In addition, starting this year, a Division III team's overall record (i.e. including games against non-regional foes) will be weighted the same by the selection committee as the in-region mark (assuming a team plays 70 percent of its contest against regional foes). This makes inter-regional clashes like Stevenson-RIT -- a game that was only looked at in a secondary capacity in years past -- worthwhile from a resume perspective. It could also entice future heavyweight bouts that would fulfill Cantabene's quest.

Obviously, Division III will never be able to match the excitement generated by Division I, but that doesn't mean D-III has to sit in the corner. The willingness of Cantabene and other programs to raise their division's profile in the face of conventional wisdom is a positive for all involved, particularly the fans.

Speaking of the Mustangs...

The champs have once again put together a ridiculous non-conference schedule featuring some of the best teams in the country, but is Stevenson ready to match last year's success?

"I like our depth," Cantabene said. "We were able to bring in a great recruiting class and a couple of good transfers. We're deeper in the midfield than last year. We have more athletes and we're faster. We're a little deeper defensively. We have a couple of kids who came in who we really think are good players."

The attack should be fine, especially if Stephen Banick – who led the team in scoring as a freshman in '12 – returns from the injury that kept him out of all but one game last spring. Juniors Michael Crowe, Billy Burgoyne and faceoff stud Brent Hiken (70.9 FO%) anchor the midfield while junior Callum Robinson and senior Kyle Holechek front a defense that could better last year's 7.09 goals against average.

That number could go lower if sophomore goalie Dmitri Pecunes builds off what Cantabene saw from him this fall.

"He's been better than ever," Cantabene said. "He's more solid. More steady, less nervous. He's a better leader this year. When you are a freshman, it's tough to tell the upperclassmen what to do because they'll fire back at you. He has all those guys' respect after how well he played in the playoff run. He's calmer than ever and better than ever. He's a captain this year, which is great for him. It really showed what everybody thought of him."

With the national championship trophy sitting on the shelf and a roster seemingly just as stacked as last year, the Mustangs are nearly a lock for the preseason No. 1 ranking. Are there any chinks in the Stevenson armor?

"We've just got to make sure that success doesn't go to our head," Cantabene said. "We've done a good job with the guys making sure they understand that this a new year and a new team. But so far we like what's going on and the guys are working."

The Contenders Are...

There will undoubtedly be some new and/or established teams in the mix as well, but if we're going to look at who'll be the biggest threats to Stevenson's crown, it starts with the three other semifinalists from 2013.

RIT appears to be loaded offensively. The top 14 scorers, led by the likes of attackman Jack Krzyston and Eddie Kiesa along with middies Kyle Aquin and Allister Warren, are all back in Roc City. After missing last season, Brendan MacDonald – the Tigers' second-leading scorer in '12 – could return to the team this spring, according to head coach Jake Coon. More frighteningly, Coon believes that there are some rookies who could crack this already stacked frontline.

"Our freshman class is looking really good," he said. "We have a freshman attackman who is looking really good and he might be a potential starter down there for us."

With a stacked offense returning, defense will be the big question mark for RIT this spring. Jake Coon (above) feels he has several players ready to fill in the holes on the backline.
© John Strohsacker

Defensive development will hold the key for RIT, but Coon felt good about sophomore Jay Krzyston (Jack's younger brother) and junior Blair Wilber joining senior Joe Dupra and a deep goalie corps, led by junior Pat Johnston. And don't be surprised if senior Mac Keehfus, who earned All-American honors as a d-middie last year, gets some more run on the offensive end.

It appeared that Division III was going to get out from under the thumb of Salisbury last year with the program "rebuilding" after the graduation of the epic 2012 class. After a stunning loss to St. Mary's in the CAC championship game, the Sea Gulls entered the NCAA tournament with five losses – the largest pre-NCAA total in the Jim Berkman era. Still, Salisbury grinded its way back to the semifinals, which included a victory over South top seed and previously undefeated Dickinson.

The division may have had its chance. The Gulls defense is going to be rock solid and the attack, which was wobbly at times, should be much improved. Berkman envisions sophomore Brady Dashiell, junior Jesse Rabishaw and seniors Rhett DePol and Luke Phipps getting the bulk of the minutes.

"Those four have really done well this fall and I'm impressed with their ability to play together," Berkman said. "We shoot a whole lot better down there on attack."

It's difficult when you make some uncharacteristic mental mistakes in the second most important game of the season, but that's what happened to Cortland against RIT last year. The Tigers earned the victory, but just like every other semifinalist from last year, the Red Dragons will be just as good, if not a tad better, than in '13.

Senior middie Joe Slavik and sophomore attackman Zach Hopps lead their respective units, giving the offense plenty of punch. But as always, Cortland will makes its bones on the back end. Despite losing key guys like C.J. Nye, Craig Sullivan and goalie Mike Kaminski, the expectation is the Dragons will be just as stiff. Seniors J.T. Foltz, Mike Warner and Brian Winterfeldt, along with junior Steve Abba, will be major players.

The key guy is junior goalie Scott Tota, who went 12-1 as a freshman in '12 with a 4.44 GAA and redshirted last year after undergoing surgery.

"Tota had a great fall," Beville said. "There's a reason that he led the nation in goals against average his freshman year. He really only had one bad game his freshman year and that was against a real good Tufts team. He is a junior and he's a primed and ready for a big season."

Slides and Rides

- Despite having a year of eligibility left, Washington College standout LSM Jonny Poe will not be returning this spring. He has passed on the grad school option at this point, playing a couple of games on the LXM tour and joining the labor force. "Johnny is in the real world, although we would love to still have him on the roster," said Shoremen head coach Jeff Shirk. As for what's returner to Chestertown, the head coach is cautiously optimistic. "I'm excited where we're at and just hoping that the guys are working as hard as a I think they are," Shirk said.

- Roanoke wasn't expecting to have the services of Clarke Lewis, who was a senior last year, but Maroons head coach Bill Pilat is glad to have him back. Lewis missed his entire junior year with an injury, freeing up another year. "He's a faceoff guy, a d-middie; a throwback-type of guy," Pilat said. "He's back, which is great because he's really tough, really gritty and he had a fantastic fall. We're excited about him."

Lewis will be part of a defensive unit that has Pilat energized for 2014. "I'm really excited about our defense, which is strange because we're a high-scoring team," he said. "But all of defense back and our All-American goalie – who I think is one of the best in the country – is back. When you have a goalie and defense like that, you're going to be tough to beat. Two-thirds of our attack returns, and they had a good fall." Pilat concedes that the midfield is a work in progress, and will be the focus of January practice.

- Conn. College head coach Dave Cornell was excited about welcoming junior transfer Mitchell Green to the program. Green was a defenseman at Washington & Lee the past two seasons, but sat out all of '13 with an injury. "He's going to be pretty good," Cornell said. The Camels head man said that he's almost done with next year's recruiting class, but he's still keeping an eye out for a faceoff man. He also hinted there could be an impact transfer coming in after the winter break. Conn. College, as a member of the NESCAC, has no fall ball.

- Amherst, another NESCAC squad, is coming off a 5-10 campaign that featured five one-goal losses (three of them in overtime) and a stunning 19-9 loss to Middlebury in the season finale that kept the Lord Jeffs out of the eight-team conference tourney. "We started adopting a phrase around here: 'There is nothing more motivating than a humiliating loss,'" said Amherst skipper Jon Thompson. "We are very, very motivated and we'll see how that translates. We're working hard and we only have three or four months before we see it." The Lord Jeffs will be a more seasoned team in '14, which will be a nice change. "We're at a point this year where we're not going to have to have seven freshmen start, thank goodness," said Thompson.

- One of the more intriguing teams to gauge heading into the spring is Lynchburg. The Hornets posted a great year with some high-powered offensive weapons and a maturing defense. Now their success appears to predicated solely on the back end. "The glaring issue with our defense, especially against the Stevensons of the world, is we gave up some goals," said Lynchburg head coach Steve Koudelka. "We're definitely a bit more mature down at that end. We're going to be better by default, but we're working on how we can go from being better by experience to being better because we're more athletic and we know more, etc. We have the right kids; it's just a matter of us coaching them well enough."

The offense is somewhat unsettled, but Koudelka views it as a lump of unmolded clay. "That's been kind of neat. We've bounced some guys around. We had a lot of younger kids playing in those playoff games and you could totally see it when they came back that they weren't freshmen or sophomores anymore," he said. "You've got to have that. Last year some of those guys played as freshmen, but now they are at a whole new level. That's been really exciting for us to see. That side of the ball has been pretty interesting."

- Dickinson picked a bad time to play its two worst quarters of the year. Leading 5-1 over Salisbury in the quarterfinals early in the second period, the Red Devils cratered, allowing the Sea Gulls to score nine of the next 11 goals for a 10-7 bulge heading into the final frame and the eventual 11-9 triumph. Now they're left with that bitter taste and a roster missing a bunch of key cogs. "We lost a significant group and some outstanding players and leaders," admitted Dickinson head coach Dave Webster. "I like the group we have now, but there are a lot of new roles and guys have to get comfortable in those new roles and find their voice and comfort level."

The cupboard isn't bare by any stretch – the program is too far advanced for that to happen – but losing one of the best LSMs (Brandon Palladino), middies (Matt Cherry) and goalies (Greg Hanley) in the country will leave a dent. Webster is looking forward to the challenge. "Any coach will tell you that the most rewarding part of the process is having that guy who has waited his turn and has that opportunity and see him take off with it," he said.

- Denison's first year in the AQ world didn't go as planned. The Big Red finished with a 13-3 mark, but lost in the NCAC title game to bitter rival Ohio Wesleyan and were left out of the NCAA tournament picture for the first time in eight years. The objective is to win the league in '14, but head coach Mike Carvana has done what he can to make sure his team will remain in the discussion even if they get thrown into the at-large pool. The Big Red will know where they stand in mid-March after facing W&L, Roanoke, Stevens, St. Mary's and Dickinson.

"We are optimistic," Caravana said. "We have a good team and feel that we'll be in the national picture, but we'll have to see how things play out. It's a long season. Our schedule is bumped up a little bit. We'll have a better idea on March 22 where we are at the national level when we come back from our spring break." The true gauntlet will be contests against Stevens, St. Mary's and Dickinson in a seven-day span at neutral sites. Regardless of what happens, the Big Red will have a trap door.

"The advantage of the schedule is if we go 1-5 and we win the conference, we'll still go to the playoffs," Caravana said. "You are trying to create two different ways to get in. There is that opportunity now [for us] that you might not have had 12 years ago."

- Cabrini has always had clear sailing to the tournament via its immature conference, and nothing will change this year, but the Cavs will have to grow up a little bit themselves if they want to hang around with their opponents this spring. Head coach Steve Colfer knows it. "You can just tell we are younger," he said. "Just the way we approach practice and team meetings. You just get a sense that we have to bring these young cubs along a little bit."

Senior attackman Corey Elmer, who produced 100 points last year, is a nice safety blanket to have with a young team, but Colfer isn't getting too cozy. "Everyone is undefeated right now," he said.

- You remember that Stevenson won the national championship last year, but do you recall that the Mustangs just barely won the MAC title? Stevenson trailed Widener by a goal with 7:44 left in the game and were still tied at eights with 53 seconds left before pulling out a 9-8 win. The Pride held the Mustangs to their second lowest output of the season and scored more goals against Stevenson than both Lynchburg and Salisbury in the tournament. It's something that Widener hopes to build on.

"I hope it motivates our guys," said head coach Brendan Dawson. "It's something that we talk about. We played the best team in the country late in the year really tough and that's a feather in our cap to build on. But it was a frustrating thing because we felt that we were in a position to win the game. We got some great play from our defense and our goalie and it was another case of what could have been."

That was theme for the Pride in '13. They lost six games by a total of 10 goals. A couple of goals here and there, and Widener is flirting with tournament whether they win the MAC or not. That's the approach Dawson will be taking this year, balanced by the knowledge that they can't get complacent. "I think we can beat anybody on any given day, but we could definitely lose to anybody on any day," he said.

- With the announcement by the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) that it will be sponsoring lacrosse starting in 2015, the burgeoning Midwest rivalry between Carthage and Aurora could be in jeopardy. Will the rivalry continue? "Everybody asks me that," said Carthage head coach Dave Neff. "For us, it's not the case. We look more at our traditional rivalries and schools we're similar to. Whether it's Augustana or Illinois Wesleyan now. It's kind of a no-holds barred thing for Aurora, but maybe if we start beating them it will be different."

This year will be the Red Men's last to have access to the Midwest Lacrosse Conference's automatic qualifying bid – currently the property of Aurora – and Neff feels they've got a shot at it.

"We have a really young, small group, but I think it's potentially our best team," he said. "We got a really good goalie from Arapahoe [Colo.], who has been their starter for the past two years. He'll really be a great pillar for our program. We'll be young and inexperienced, but we'll be athletic, so we'll have a shot in most of our games."

- Like Carthage, Colorado College will lean on a lot of younger players this year, but Sean Woods likes what he saw out of his young Tigers this fall. "It was a little sloppy like you'd expect, but our returners came back in pretty good shape and we have a big, solid freshman class," Woods said. "We're young but really athletic. We kind of jelled in the last couple of weeks of fall ball. We were pushing the tempo against Air Force and we battled them pretty good; they are always a good resource right up the street. That game showed us the speed we need to be successful, so it was a great fall."

NOTES: Signing official letters of intent does not exist in Division III and there has been a lot of angst about signing younger and younger players, but that didn't stop Tufts from inking a player for the Class of 2025. Good stuff from the Jumbos...Ryan Clarke, who was a preseason Player of the Year candidate in '13 but missed most of the season because on injury, will not be returning to Salisbury this spring, according to Jim Berkman...the MAC will be adding Delaware Valley in 2015, but they'll be saying goodbye to Elizabethtown, which will be in the Landmark Conference in '15...the CCIW currently has four teams – Augustana, Carthage, Elmhurst and Illinois Wesleyan – so they'll need three of its four remaining conference teams (Millikin, North Central, North Park, Wheaton) to add the sport to trigger an AQ. The possibility of adding an associate member is also available.

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