Defenseman Andrew Sellers and goalkeeper Alex Taylor were unified in their assessment that Salisbury’s offense deserves every inch of print and every second of the highlight reel as that unit is tops in Division III.
The Sea Gulls defense is not exactly chopped steak either. After Sunday’s 7-2 win against Stevenson in an NCAA tournament semifinal at Sea Gull Stadium in Salisbury, that unit vaulted over Cabrini to lead the country in goals allowed per game.
Reminded of the defense’s national status, Sellers, a senior who hails from Baltimore and graduated from Archbishop Curley, conceded, “That’s true. We like flying under the radar. We don’t like the attention.”
That may be difficult to do after the nine-time reigning national champion Sea Gulls (22-0) limited the Mustangs to their lowest output in eight years. Stevenson (18-5) hadn’t finished a contest with just two goals since March 6, 2004 when that team – then known as Villa Julie – was routed 11-2 by Montclair State.
The Mustangs also went scoreless in the first half, marking the second time they’ve done that since Paul Cantabene became the head coach in 2005. The last time? The Capital Athletic Conference tournament final on April 19, 2009 when they were blanked, 6-0, in the first half by – guess who? – Salisbury.
“We knew we were going to have chances,” Cantabene said. “… To lose this game, it’s a tough one for us. We thought we had a really good game plan. I think we did have a good game plan. We just couldn’t get the ball in the net, and sometimes that happens.”
The Sea Gulls relied on the play of Taylor, the sophomore who hails from Woodbine and graduated from Glenelg. He made a game-high 19 saves, and the defense forced Stevenson’s shooters to take low-percentage shots.
That allowed the offense to finally find its rhythm in the second half.
“We have to give the defense all the credit,” said senior midfielder Sam Bradman, who paved the way with a game-high three points on two goals and one assist. “When we’re not scoring, they have our backs. We get comfortable when we’re not having a good game and we’re not getting the shots that we’re looking for. We can always rely on our defense to stop the shots and get us the ball back. They sort of have our backs all the time. So that’s nice.”
*Despite never trailing Sunday and the continued confident play of Taylor and the defense, Salisbury was still wary about letting up against the Mustangs. Bradman said he and his teammates refused to relax until the final horn sounded. “I was never comfortable,” he said. “With a team like that, they can come out and score. We know we had to play our defense and keep firing. They could make a run at anytime. So with a team like that, we were never comfortable really.”
*Sunday’s NCAA tournament final pits the only two undefeated teams in the country in SUNY-Cortland (21-0) and the Sea Gulls. With a 12-10 decision in Sunday’s other semifinal, the Red Dragons knocked off Tufts, who had advanced to the last two title games. Salisbury coach Jim Berkman said the team had no preference for their opponent. “We’re just happy to be playing in the national championship,” he said. “There was no animosity about who we played. We knew we were going to play a great team either way. I guess it’s kind of fitting that in the national championship, we have the two undefeated teams – the one from the South and the one from the North. And we’re very excited to play the Cortland Red Dragons.”
*Stevenson’s lack of punch of offense may have been exacerbated by the left leg injury that forced Stephen Banick to leave the game in the fourth quarter. The freshman attackman and leading scorer for the Mustangs crumpled to the turf with 12:31 left in regulation after planting his left leg behind the cage and had to be carried off the field with the lower portion of that leg immobilized in a cast. Cantabene said he was still waiting for more details on Banick’s injury, but he declined to use his absence as an excuse. “Obviously, Steve’s such a great player for us and had an unbelievable freshman year,” Cantabene said, referring to Banick’s 63 points on 36 goals and 27 assists. “He goes to the goal so hard and causes so many problems. But it didn’t change our aspect. We just threw [freshman] Michael [Crowe] in there. I was thinking about putting [freshman] Pat Candon in, but he hasn’t played in a while. So I didn’t think he was into the flow of the game as much. Michael was playing really well. So we just threw him in there and we got our best six on the field every time after that. Unfortunately, we lost a real talented player, but yet again, we were put in position to make plays and we didn’t make them. That hurt.”
*Cantabene also questioned the officials’ ruling that senior midfielder Nick Rossi did not score a goal. Trailing 5-1 with 2:08 left in the third quarter, Rossi appeared to have tucked a shot under the crossbar. The ball bounced back into the field of play and despite the Mustangs’ protests, the officials ruled that Rossi did not score and play continued. “I thought the non-call on the goal, that’s a big goal not to call,” Cantabene said. “It was in the net, and we know it was in the net. That was a non-call that hurt. That gets us to 5-2 and maybe things are a little bit different at that point. We don’t have to scramble as much late. They got those last two while we were scrambling. So I thought that was a tough one.