Overview: Having reached the NCAA quarterfinals in 2011 and the semifinals in 2012, the Mustangs were ready to make their first appearance in the championship final.
But not content with just making a showing, the 2013 squad reached the pinnacle of the Division III mountain with a 16-14 win over the Rochester Institute of Technology, giving the school its first national title in any sport.
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With six starters gone from last year’s team, there is some doubt about what Stevenson can do for an encore. But with the return of a pair of former starters, perhaps the trophy case in Owings Mills could be home to an addition on Memorial Day weekend.
Reason for optimism: The offense ranked fifth in the country last season, averaging 15.5 goals per game. But the defense wasn’t exactly a wallflower, ranking 22nd after allowing 7.1 goals per game.
A pair of starting defensemen in senior Kyle Holechek (74 ground balls and 32 caused turnovers) and junior Callum Robinson (73 GB, 35 CT) are back, and sophomore Chad Williams (25 GB, 18 CT) is poised to replace the graduated Parker Bratton (52 GB, 22 CT) as the third starter.
Senior Ryan Rubenstein (32 GB, 18 CT) and sophomore Tony Roney (8 GB, 2 CT) will share time at long-stick midfielder, and junior Connor Curro (50 GB, 18 CT) and sophomore Dylan Muti (19 GB, 5 CT) are stalwarts as short-stick defensive midfielders.
Coach Paul Cantabene said the defense will be the team’s strength this season.
“I think they have a real chance to be a very special group defensively because this will be pretty much the second or third year that they’re all playing together,” he said. “They’re all long, athletic, fast, mean. They do a lot of the things you’d like a defense to be.”
Reason for pessimism: As mentioned above, the Mustangs featured a potent offense that scored at least 12 goals in 17 of 24 games last spring. But the unit graduated attackman Tyler Reid (52 goals and 18 assists) and midfielders Peter Green (39, 15) and Nick Rossi (33, 13).
In addition, junior attackman Mark Pannenton (62, 7) and junior midfielder Michael Crowe (25, 17) will not play this season due to personal reasons. While Cantabene is quick to point to a deep roster that includes the return of a pair of familiar faces (more on them later), he also acknowledged that the revamped units must build a camaraderie like the one on last year’s squad
“We think we have good team chemistry, but that has to continue and develop,” Cantabene said. “Last year’s team had great team chemistry, and we’ve got to continue to develop. We have a lot of guys that can do things, but we need guys to step up and understand what it takes from a mental standpoint in order to be successful.”
Keep an eye on: Attackman Stephen Banick and midfielder Nick Rossi have returned after missing a year due to a broken left leg for Banick and eligibility issues for Rossi.
Banick, who has three years of eligibility left, led the team in goals (36) and points (63) in 2012 and rejoins an attack composed of senior Chris Dashiell (33, 53 in 2013) and freshman Eddie McLoughlin.
“Having Stephen back in the lineup gives us another ball carrier like Chris, another guy who can go to the goal and make plays, and that’s what he’d do,” Cantabene said. “He’d make plays out of nothing and draw fouls. He’d do things that other attackmen can’t.”
Rossi, who has two years of eligibility remaining, added 20 goals and nine assists in 2012 and is competing with junior Billy Burgoyne (34, 6 in 2013), senior Glen Tompkins (14, 14) and a pair of transfers in Jordan Seivold (Navy) and Alex Hardwick (St. Joseph’s) for a spot on the first midfield.
“It gives us a playmaker at the midfield,” Cantabene said of Rossi’s return. “He can go hard to the goal and make plays. He has great eyes, and he’s an all-around player. He’s a Player of the Year-type candidate. He’s got a lot of things that he can do that other people can’t.”
What he said: No one can accuse the Mustangs of ducking the competition as they seek to retain the national title they captured last season. Eight of their 17 opponents qualified for the 2013 NCAA tournament, including all three participants in the Final Four.
Stevenson will meet RIT in a rematch of their championship final on Feb. 22 in Syracuse, N.Y., and the team will host the Mustang Classic, a four-team event that includes contests against Nazareth on March 21 and SUNY-Cortland on March 22.
While some coaches might shy away from diving into a tough schedule and risk incurring some losses, Cantabene said that is not his approach.
“I don’t think we’re worried about losses right now,” he said. “We’re worried about winning each game. And you’ve got to beat good teams to be a good team. … We think it’s a good schedule with good teams, and that’s what we’re trying to do, play the best teams out there.
"There’s a lot of teams that we can play and beat by a lot, but we’re trying to get ready for the postseason and get ourselves ready hopefully for another run at the championship. There’s a good chance we could lose a game, but we hope not.”