No. 4 Stevenson not only defeated No. 12 and reigning national champion Salisbury, 12-6, in a NCAA tournament semifinal to advance to the program’s first title game, but the Mustangs may also have banished some ghosts of the past.
Stevenson had been escorted out of the postseason in two of the past three seasons by the Sea Gulls, who still command a 10-6 advantage in their series with their former Capital Athletic Conference foe.
What made Sunday’s triumph even more special is that the Mustangs had been evicted from the Final Four in 2010 and 2012 by Salisbury, a program that has captured 10 national titles.
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“We finally got the monkey off our back, finally beating Salisbury,” said senior midfielder Peter Green, a Hereford graduate. “They kicked us out of the playoffs two years in my time here, and to beat them and to do it decisively, it feels good.”
Added junior attackman Chris Dashiell: “It’s awesome to come out on top against them. Being able to [hear] that last whistle blow, your heart just sinks into your stomach and you get real happy, and it’s just wonderful.”
Stevenson’s win came on the heels of last year’s 7-2 loss to the Sea Gulls in the Final Four. Senior attackman Tyler Reid said the pain of that setback had resonated with him.
“Beating them is a great feeling, especially after coming off the field last year,” he said. “It’s never fun to lose when you’re in such a bitter rivalry like that. It’s finally great to get that monkey off your back.”
The Mustangs’ comments are a testament to the stranglehold that Salisbury has maintained in the South region. Prior to Sunday, the Sea Gulls had marched to nine of the past 10 national semifinals and emerged victorious for the right to compete for the NCAA title.
Stevenson (21-2) joins the 2009 Gettysburg squad as the only teams other than Salisbury to represent the South in the tournament final since 2003.
Mustangs coach Paul Cantabene may have paid the Sea Gulls the ultimate compliment when he pointed to Salisbury as a model for what he is attempting to do with his program.
“We’re trying to be like Salisbury,” he said. “We want to do the things they do. We respect them so much and how they go about the program and building and how they’re there every year. We hope that we’re just at the beginning stages of trying to build our program. We’re happy where we are, but we know we’ve got another game and we hopefully have a lot of season ahead of us. But it’s building and doing things the right way, and I think that’s one of the things we’ve always done.”
In just eight seasons, Cantabene has turned a Stevenson team that had never been to the NCAA tournament into a perennial powerhouse that had advanced to four national semifinals in the past five years and is on the cusp of capturing the school’s first Division III championship in any sport.
The journey has been breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time, but Cantabene did not sound as if he would have had it any other way.
“This is a great accomplishment,” Cantabene said. “This is something that as a coach – when I first took over at Stevenson University and in my first year you’re practicing on a slanted practice field and your AD is removing rocks from the field – you never think these moments would be possible. It’s just kind of a miracle that we’re sitting here even talking to you [about] going to this game.”
** Dashiell’s joy at reaching his first NCAA tournament final was bittersweet as it came at the expense of younger brother Brady, a starting freshman attackman for the Sea Gulls (17-6). Chris Dashiell, who scored three goals during the Mustangs’ 4-0 run to close out the second quarter, expressed sympathy for his brother, but predicted that he would play for a national title soon. “He’s got time,” the elder Dashiell said. “He’s obviously a great player, and I think he carried his team on his back. He doesn’t have anything to be ashamed about.” Brady Dashiell, who recorded four points on three goals and one assist, declined to share his thoughts. “I don’t really have a lot to say about it,” he said. “It’s about two great programs going against each other, and it just so happened to be that my brother is on the other side. That’s all I really have to say about it.”
** After a 12-goal explosion in the first half, both teams managed just a combined six goals in the second half as Stevenson was content to run time off the clock with long possessions and limited opportunities for Salisbury. The Sea Gulls tried to apply pressure and in doing so, got physical and confrontational at times. Brady Dashiell was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for jawing at a Mustangs defenseman after scoring his last goal with 8:21 left in regulation, and sophomore defenseman Knute Kraus and junior midfielder Greg Korvin were cited for unsportsmanlike conduct and an illegal body check, respectively, in the last two minutes of the contest. But Stevenson took the penalties in stride – a sign to Cantabene of the team’s development. “You’ve got to play at the highest level, but you’ve got to play composed,” he said. “And in this game, I think we did a good job of staying composed and then Salisbury started to get a little chippy, and we were able to maintain our composure. That’s a lot different for this team than in the past. In the past, we probably would have responded, and I think we did a good job of not doing that in this game.”
** In last year’s national semifinal, Salisbury goalkeeper Alex Taylor made 19 saves – including 14 in the second and third quarters – to silence the Mustangs. But Stevenson turned the tables on the junior, scoring five goals on its first eight shots, and the Glenelg graduate conceded that the Mustangs were just too accurate and efficient in the first half. “They stuck four or five shots early,” said Taylor, who still finished with a game-high nine saves. “It was a completely different feel from last year when I was saving the ball really well. I had a great warmup today, and they just played great offense.”