Salisbury at Stevenson: Three things to watch

Ten-time national champion Salisbury owns a 10-6 advantage in this series, but reigning Division III national titlist Stevenson has won six of 13 matchups dating back to 2009. The Mustangs have won 20 consecutive games at Mustang Stadium and are 35-2 since its opening, while the Sea Gulls are 7-1 on the road this season.

No. 3 Salisbury (15-1) has won five straight contests since a surprising 8-7 overtime setback to Capital Athletic Conference foe Christopher Newport on April 2. The defense ranks 23rd in the country after surrendering just 6.5 goals per game this spring. The unit is backed by senior goalkeeper Alex Taylor, who ranks 21st in the nation with a 6.71 goals-against average and 48th with a .590 save percentage.

No. 2 Stevenson (13-1) has won 12 consecutive games since dropping a 15-14 overtime decision to current No. 1 Rochester Institute of Technology on Feb. 22. An offense that is tied for 14th in Division III has had 29 different players score a goal this spring. Sophomore attackman Stephen Banick leads the team in goals with 26, and senior attackman Chris Dashiell leads the offense in assists with 19.

Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome at Mustang Stadium in Owings Mills on Saturday at 7 p.m.

1) Salisbury’s offense vs. Stevenson’s defense. The Sea Gulls are ranked 16th in the country in offense after scoring 14.1 goals per game. But the unit isn’t led by one superstar. Five players have scored at least 20 goals, and four more have scored 10 or more. The Mustangs are no slouch on defense, having limited opposing offenses to 6.9 goals. But coach Paul Cantabene conceded that scouting Salisbury is not an easy assignment.

“They’re definitely playing as the sum of their parts,” he said. “I don’t think they have one main guy that they really go to. They obviously have a couple of really good middies, but everybody on their team has really done their roles. And they’ve also changed the way that they’ve played. They’re a slow-down team now. They take their time, they’re not really pushing transition as much, they’re trying to wear you down and shorten the game. We watched them play Cabrini, and they took their time. They were really slow and dictated the pace of the game compared to past years when their pressure defense would go up and run up and down. Now they’re back to being a slow-paced team that controls the pace of the game and runs a lot of their set plays and gets contributions from a lot of people.”

2) Salisbury’s takeaways vs. Stevenson’s giveaways. The Mustangs can play fast and furious, and sometimes that can lead to costly turnovers. Four of their worst five contests regarding giveaways occurred against tough opponents in Widener (23 turnovers), No. 8 Tufts (22), Nazareth (20) and No. 1 RIT (19). The Sea Gulls rank 45th in the nation in caused turnovers at 10.3 per game, but coach Jim Berkman is focusing on his team protecting the ball and making smart decisions.

“We’re going to try not to turn the ball over, and we’re going to be opportunistic when they do turn it over,” he said. “By the same token, we’re more concerned about what we’re doing than what they’re doing. We’ve got to do what we’ve been doing. We’ve got to take care of the ball, we’ve got to get in the hole, we’ve got to handle the pressure, and if we do that, based on who we have and what we’ve done, that will be the key to our success.”

3) Faceoffs. The Sea Gulls are led by senior Chris Biank, who returned from a five-game absence due to a separated shoulder and has won 57.9 percent (95-of-164) of his draws and leads the team in ground balls with 52. And if Biank is struggling, Salisbury can turn to sophomore Preston Dabbs, who has won 53.2 percent (50-of-94). But they could have their hands full against the Mustangs’ duo of senior Brent Hiken (70.7 percent on 162-of-229 and 111 ground balls) and sophomore Justin Buonomo (62.4 percent on 53-of-85 and 40 ground balls). Cantabene is hoping Hiken and Buonomo can help Stevenson dictate the game’s tempo.

“It can be a big advantage in this game because whoever wins those faceoffs is going to control the pace of the game,” Cantabene said. “If they’re successful with it, they’re going to take their time and shorten the game, and then we’ve got to put more pressure and work on them and be able to hopefully get through that tough defense that they have. So I think faceoffs are going to be incredibly important, especially turnovers off of faceoffs. If we get it and turn it over and give them transition, then that’s going to be a problem.”

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