Stevenson has earned the No. 1 ranking during the regular season on several occasions, but this winter is the first time that the program has been deemed the top team in Division III in the preseason.
Accompanying that lofty ranking is usually the pressure of living up to that billing, but Mustangs coach Paul Cantabene said that’s not the case.
“We’ve been No. 1 in the country before. We’ve been there and done all that stuff,” he said. “I think in the end, it’s no different than what we’ve been through before. These guys were used to it last year, playing in a lot of big-time situations. I think they’re doing a great job of adjusting to it and playing hard. So I don’t think it’s any different from what we’ve done before. It’s just that we’re starting out a little higher in the preseason than we have in the past.”
Stevenson is ranked No. 1 by Inside Lacrosse, which has SUNY-Cortland – last year’s NCAA tournament finalist – at No. 2. Lacrosse Magazine flipped the teams with the Red Dragons at No. 1 and the Mustangs at No. 2.
Coaches often worry that a No. 1 ranking can artificially inflate players’ egos and set them up for future losses, but Cantabene said he hasn’t seen or heard anything that would give him pause about his players’ attitudes.
“They’re a bunch of blue-collar, hard-working kids,” he said. “I love the way they practice. I don’t think anybody practices as hard as our kids do. The way our guys go after each other in practice day in and day out, sometimes I have to peel them back a little bit and tell them that we can’t hurt ourselves. So I think they’ve done a really good job overall and they understand what we’re trying to do. They understand the accomplishments and how far we’ve come in the past, and we’ve got to try to find a way to get a game better.”
After falling in the NCAA tournament semifinals in three of the past four years, Stevenson is eager to break through and get to the title game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on May 26.
“I think our expectations are that we want to get to Philadelphia. That’s our goal,” Cantabene said. “I think we’ve got enough players to do it. We’ve been to three of the last four Final Fours. We had a great shot at getting there last year, and we just ran into a pretty good team that played a little bit better than us at the right time. I think that’s happened the last couple years, and we’ve got to figure out the playoffs and how to play our best game when it matters the most. I think these guys are a motivated group. I think they understand the level of play that we expect out of them, and we’re going to hold them to that accountability. At the same time, these guys do a great job of respecting their opponents. You’ve got to play with heart every day to get better. You can’t turn it on and off.”