For the first time since Hobart defeated SUNY-Cortland in Division III's first NCAA tournament in 1980, the championship final will involve a pair of participants making their first appearance in the title game when No. 4 Stevenson and No. 3 Rochester Institute of Technology clash Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
The Mustangs (21-2) and the Tigers (19-2) have played in their fair share of pressure-packed games, and their presence in Sunday's championship is a testament to their perseverance and character. But because of both programs' inexperience at this stage of the tournament, it is conceivable that nerves could play a role in the NCAA tournament final.
"I think both teams are going to have some nerves early on," Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene said. "Whatever team settles in first is going to have a little bit of an advantage. But I think we've played in enough big games and we've put enough pressure on our guys in practice to perform. Our game against [reigning national champion] Salisbury [in May 19th's quarterfinal] in front of all those people, you're not going to be any more nervous than for that game. So I think our guys know that we've played pretty loose all year, and hopefully, we can continue to do that."
RIT coach Jake Coon, who played goalie for the 1997 Nazareth squad that captured the national crown in 1997, is fully aware of the emotional turmoil some of the players might have to endure. So he has a firsthand perspective of a method of helping them overcome their anxiety.
"What we want to talk to them about is getting those jitters out right away, kind of soaking things up during our pre-practice on Saturday and not letting all of the distractions get to you because there are surely a lot of them," Coon said. "Just staying focused on the task at hand and sticking to what we do and what we've preached all year. The distractions and keeping focused are certainly going to be a priority for us this week."
As Cantabene said, the team that reins in its adrenaline first will gain the edge, and he plans to help the Mustangs by using positive reinforcement.
"I think you've just got to be loose and tell them that you have confidence, and we tell them that all the time," Cantabene said. "We don't put any more pressure on them from the beginning of the game than we do at halftime. I think our guys have responded well all year. They know that have our confidence. So I think they'll settle down. We know there are going to be nerves on both sides, but I think both teams will settle down after the first couple minutes and just realize that this is another lacrosse game."