February 14, 2014

#LMRanks: No. 1 Salisbury Sea Gulls (WD3)

By Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

No. 1 Salisbury Sea Gulls

2013 record: 23-0 (6-0 Capital Athletic Conference) 
Coach: Jim Nestor (13th year)
Record at Salisbury: 221-24

Top Returner: G Ashton Wheatley (Sr.)
Salisbury’s heart and soul is the athletic former midfielder who grew up nearby on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Wheatley ranked second in D-III in save percentage (.563) and goals against average (5.56) in 2013.

X-Factor: M Bethany Baer (Jr.)
The Sea Gulls graduated a ton on offense, including two All-Americans. Bear (40 goals, 19 assists) provides SU with an athletic returning presence All-American up front.

Top returner Ashton Wheatley is LM's Preseason Player of the Year for NCAA Women's DIII. (Scott McCall)

Previous: No. 2 Cortland

Any questions about the existence of a post-championship hangover at Salisbury were answered the first time coach Jim Nestor addressed his team this fall.

“He came out of the gate very intense,” said All-American goalie Ashton Wheatley, LM’s 2014 Preseason Player of the Year. “That helped us get back into it. We were like, ‘Oh he’s serious this year.’ That’s him making sure we don’t lose sight of anything.”

For the first time since 2000, Nestor didn’t coach the Sea Gulls soccer team this fall. He used that extra time to start fall ball a little later. That put a few extra weeks between Salisbury’s first offseason practices and last May’s NCAA championship.

“We were all joking, ‘Just because you don’t have another sport doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to do,’” Wheatley said. “All in good fun. He’s just so passionate about it and spends so much time on it. It’s double now.”

Nestor has guided Salisbury to two championships in the past four years and the Sea Gulls haven’t lost a regular season game since 2011. They trailed at halftime only once last year, in the NCAA semifinals against Middlebury. They’ve also lost just once in the past two years, in the 2012 NCAA finals to Trinity.

They graduated two first-team All-Americans, but Salisbury is a public school in Maryland. It could easily dominate for the next decade of Division III the way that other public school in Maryland has dominated Division I.

“We’re looking good,” Wheatley said. “It’s definitely going to be an adjustment. Coach is a very smart guy. He knows how to adjust our game with what kind of players we have. I have all the faith. We have a couple of girls that are really stepping up from last year.”

The Sea Gulls also return two first-team All-Americans -- Wheatley, the 2013 IWLCA Goaltender of the Year, and Bethany Baer (40 goals, 40 ground balls, 51 draw controls), -- along with second-team All-American defender Meghan Toomey (34 ground balls, 31 caused turnovers).

And so Salisbury enters 2013 as overwhelming favorites to become Division III’s first repeat champion since 2006. But, like their coach, the Sea Gulls aren’t going to let last year’s victory soften them. After all, they lost a game in 2012.

“I think it humbles us,” Baer said. “This is a new season. We have to look past last year, even though it was awesome. My mind reverts back to when we lost my freshman year. It was so heartbreaking to watch. We just do not want to feel that ever again.”

Whether they want it or not, the Sea Gulls will get an early reminder of last year’s championship. Salisbury opens its schedule on Sunday against Roanoke and just a few days later has its first Top 20 test at Stevenson, the site of last year’s title game.

It will be the first of eight games against preseason Top 20 teams for SU. There’s a chance Salisbury could lose one of those games, but don’t bet on it.

“I know everyone on our team hates losing,” Baer said. “I want to go down without any more losses in my career.”

Redemption was team’s motto last year. They got that when they beat Trinity in the title game. This year the Sea Gulls will be the team others want to find redemption against. They've been preparing for that since October.

“That's tricky because that really is something that drove us last year,” Wheatley said. “We know that we have a huge target on our back. Hopefully it’s not personnel, but you know every team has our number. That’s something that’s driving us. We feel that heat coming.”

Lacrosse Magazine will continue its 2014 college lacrosse preview throughout January and into February, with team-by-team breakdowns of the top teams in NCAA Division I, II and III men's and women's lacrosse. Follow the countdown at LaxMagazine.com/LMRanks and on twitter at #LMRanks.

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