Here is the seventh and final installment of a series that checks in with the seven Division III programs in the state to evaluate the past and offer a glimpse into the future. Friday, we take a visit with Salisbury.
The good: For much of the 2011 campaign, the Sea Gulls (21-1 overall and 7-1 in the Capital Athletic Conference) had done a pretty good job of refraining from talking about last year’s 9-6 loss to Tufts in the NCAA tournament final. But after beating Roanoke in the semifinals and guaranteeing a rematch with the Jumbos, the players openly relished another shot at Tufts and exacted a measure of revenge with a 19-7 thrashing. “The year before, I think in everybody’s minds and the players especially, we didn’t give our best effort that day,” coach Jim Berkman said. “We didn’t mentally or physically play up to our capabilities. It’s one thing to get beat when you don’t play well, and obviously, Tufts did some things to not allow us to play well on that day, but the performance that we exhibited there in 2010 was nothing remotely like we had played down the stretch. Scoring six goals which is kind of unheard of from us, but again, credit has to be given to Tufts. By the same token, we had some kids that hadn’t been there before, and when the lights were on, they didn’t play very well. In 2011, some of those same guys played unbelievable because it was their second time there and they were a little more comfortable.” … Several players had career years, including sophomore Ryan Clarke, who joined junior Sam Bradman and senior Shawn Zordani on the first midfield. Clarke registered 10 goals and 12 assists and meshed well with Bradman (55, 23) and Zordani (31, 29), who got more touches than Clarke. “To see Ryan Clarke go from the second midfield to the first midfield down the stretch and get big goals, he just really, really blossomed,” Berkman said. “And it’s scary to see how good he could really become if he works on his shooting.” … After graduating faceoff specialist Ryan Finch (211-of-349 for .605 and 146 ground balls), Salisbury didn’t miss a beat with the insertion of Tyler Granelli. The sophomore went 220-of-337 for .653 and collected 110 ground balls despite not playing much in 2009 as a freshman at Cortland and sitting out 2010 after undergoing knee surgery in the preseason. “After each game, he just got better and better,” Berkman said. “… For him to play that well and continue to improve during the course of the season and really grab that role, I had no idea how good he was going to be. EspeciaIly with him coming off of knee surgery the year before, and he virtually had no college experience because he really didn’t play at Cortland.”
The bad: Full disclosure: when a team captures a NCAA crown – the program’s ninth in 13 finals appearances – trying to pick out negatives looks a lot like quibbling. The Sea Gulls offense finished the year ranked sixth in the country with a 15.36 goals-per-game average, but Berkman noted that the unit didn’t score more than eight goals in three of the team’s first six contests. “We played great defense all year long, but our offense wasn’t there,” he said. “Our attack wasn’t there with two new guys, some kids that hadn’t played in a couple of years. Trying to mesh together, we were winning games 7-4 and 8-2. But down the stretch, we were putting up big numbers against quality teams. … Just seeing that improvement on offense was very gratifying because we had spent a tremendous amount of time on just individual attack play throughout the year that we normally wouldn’t do at this level. All of that extra work before and after practice that we had been doing really paid off.” … Salisbury remained relatively healthy, but there were injuries. Junior attackman Matt Pierotti (10, 3 in 2010) missed the season due to injury, sophomore defenseman Brett Baer sat out six games because of a broken foot and poor conditioning, and Zordani played the entire season with a torn labrum. A concussion sidelined Bradman for three games, and Berkman thinks the brief absence cost Bradman shots at National Player of the Year and National Midfielder of the Year honors. But those injuries didn’t hamper the Sea Gulls. “It’s a little less frustrating when you’ve got good depth,” Berkman noted.
Personnel changes: Of the three starters who leave Salisbury, the largest priority involves finding a successor to National Goalkeeper of the Year Johnny Rodriguez, who recorded a 5.99 goals-against average and a .567 save percentage. Backup goalie Tim Swinburn also graduates, leaving freshman Alex Taylor as the heir apparent. “Alex Taylor is a freshman, and he’s paid his dues,” Berkman said. “He’s really athletic and quick. Based on the depth chart, he’s the guy. There’s a couple guys coming in that could compete for that spot, but Alex had a good season. He proved himself here, and he’s a real competitor. Hopefully, he’s ready to seize that moment.” … The team also has to replace a pair of starting defensemen in first-team All-American Collin Tokosch (45 ground balls and 21 caused turnovers) and honorable-mention All-American Nick Mooney (33, 30). Freshman Danny Sherr (12, 10) is poised to join junior Chad Surman (24, 14) as starters, but there are plenty of options for the third spot. Junior Andrew Sellers (32, 22) could move from his usual position as the long-stick midfielder. Or freshman Zeke Smith could step into a starting role. “I think it’s going to depend on where Zeke is because he actually played long stick a little bit,” Berkman said. “Is he going to be a better long stick or a better close defenseman? I’m not sure. So there’s three or four guys there in the mix.” … The final hole to fill involves adding a first-line midfielder to join Bradman and Clarke. Berkman floated the idea of moving junior Tony Mendes from attack to midfield, but acknowledged that replacing Mendes on attack might be even more difficult. At this point, it would appear that junior Jeff McGuire (13, 7) is the leading candidate to succeed Zordani. “He’s a great role player,” Berkman said of McGuire. “He knows the system and is smart enough to know that the ball needs to be in Sam’s stick and Ryan’s stick. Yet he’s a great cutter and can shoot on the run.”
Forecast for 2011: Sunny. Climbing back to the top of the Division III mountain means that Salisbury will likely return to the top of opponents’ hitlists. Programs like Tufts, Stevenson, Roanoke and Cortland will train their sights on the Sea Gulls and work in the offseason to dethrone the new king. But that’s familiar territory for the Salisbury players, and the return of six frontline players bodes well. The biggest question is whether Taylor can replace Rodriguez. Sherr, Smith, Baer and junior long-stick midfielder Evan Hockel should replenish the defense, and the offense is in good hands with Bradman, junior attackmen Matt Cannone (49, 39), Erik Krum (52, 16) and Mendes (48, 17). The Sea Gulls will do their best to keep the hardware on the Eastern Shore.