Stevenson became the eighth program since 1980 to capture the Division III national title, and with that, the team finds itself in an unusual position.
As the NCAA champion, the Mustangs have become the biggest “get” on opponents’ schedules. They also are trying to ward off contenders who would love nothing more than to saddle Stevenson with a loss and prevent the team from successfully defending the national crown it worked so hard to earn on Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s new for us, that’s for sure,” coach Paul Cantabene said. “We’ve got to understand that we’re everybody’s biggest game, but I think the guys are handling success well. It’s a new year and they’re focused on this season and not looking back to last year. It’s definitely a unique position to be in, and not a lot of teams are in that position, but we’re handling success pretty well and we’re looking forward to this season.”
In Cantabene’s opinion, one of the keys is a recognition by the players that 2014 may be even more difficult than 2013.
“I think they understand that this year is going to be twice as hard as last year,” he said. “I think all the games are going to be harder, and everybody is going to expect more of you. So I think they understand that and what it’s going to take in order to be successful this year. We’re doing a lot of those things to make them understand that, and they’re doing some things on their own to understand that.
"They understand what it’s going to take, because there are a lot of challenges when everybody is gunning for you and you’re the defending champion. It’s a lot harder. It’s not easy.”
First-time national champions have had mixed results trying to repeat. Hobart in 1981, Salisbury in 1995 and Middlebury in 2001 successfully earned back-to-back NCAA titles, but Nazareth in 1993, Washington College in 1999, SUNY-Cortland in 2007 and Tufts in 2011 failed in their bids.
Despite several critical losses in personnel, the Mustangs are the preseason favorite to make an appearance at M&T Bank Stadium, where the championship will be held on Memorial Day weekend. Accompanying that accolade is the pressure of getting there, but Cantabene said the players and coaches are fully prepared for the intense scrutiny.
“There’s always pressure to be a success,” he said. “I think at Stevenson, everybody wants us to be good, but I don’t think there’s a lot of pressure to repeat what we did last year. This is a different team, and every year is a different team, and everybody here understands that.
"We’re going to do the best we can to be successful, but I don’t think last year has anything to do with this year.”