These two programs will meet for the third time, but this will be their first matchup in the NCAA tournament. Stevenson has won the previous two contests in this series, including a 12-11 overtime victory on Feb. 12.
The No. 4 Mustangs (21-2) have won 10 games in a row and have not dropped a game since April 9. They rank third in Division III in faceoff percentage (69.3 percent) courtesy of junior Brent Hiken and sophomore Sam Wyatt, who rank fourth (71.7) and seventh (67.7), respectively, in individual faceoff success.
As impressive as Stevenson’s run seems, No. 3 Rochester Institute of Technology (19-2) is riding a 13-game winning streak and has not dropped a contest since March 27. The defense ranks 23rd in the nation after allowing 7.2 goals per game, but the unit is anchored by sophomore goalkeeper Pat Johnston, who ranks fifth in the nation in save percentage (.652) and 16th in goals-against average (6.78).
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Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome of this NCAA tournament final at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia Saturday.
1) Limiting RIT’s man-up offense. The Mustangs committed 5.6 penalties per game this season and have maintained that average with 5.8 infractions in four NCAA tournament games. The man-down defense has surrendered just four conversions on 23 extra-man opportunities in the postseason, but Stevenson would be wise to avoid accruing many flags against the Tigers, who are tops in Division III in man-up offense (55.4 percent). “We can’t foul them,” Mustangs coach Paul Cantabene said. “They’re so good on the man up with such slick sticks and they know how to get the ball to the inside for those easy goals. So we’re going to have to be really smart there. But we’re pretty good in the man down, too. Our guys are long and with great sticks, and they knock down a lot of passes. And so we’ll be prepared for them and some of the sets that they do. They’re very slick with how they go about it. Hopefully, we can limit their looks.”
2) Withstanding Stevenson’s defense. Salisbury, the 2012 national champion, had already experienced playing against the Mustangs’ aggressive defense, but that background did not help the Sea Gulls very much in their 12-6 loss to Stevenson in last Sunday’s tournament semifinal. Coach Jim Berkman acknowledged that the Mustangs force opponents to play faster than they are capable of playing, which leads to turnovers and rash decisions. RIT coach Jake Coon is fully aware of the pressure that defense can apply after his team coughed up the ball 16 times compared to Stevenson’s nine in their first meeting. “Their defense is excellent,” Coon said. “They’re big, rangy, athletic kids and they get out and they pressure you. We like to play fast, so I’m hoping that we can play as fast as their defense makes you play. I thought our guys in the first game of the year handled that well and at times maybe capitalized on it. We’ll see. Their defense is fantastic, there’s no doubt about it. We’re going to have our hands full trying to get to the goal and scoring.”
3) Thwarting RIT’s looks on offense. The Tigers are converting a healthy 34.5 percent of their shots, which ranks eighth in the country. All six starters on offense are shooting better than 30 percent, and RIT succeeded on 36.7 percent of its shots in that regular-season contest. Cantabene said the Mustangs know they will have to apply pressure to influence the Tigers’ shooting. “I think you’ve got to limit their looks,” he said. “You can’t give them a whole lot of great looks. But one thing that we do a good job of is we get a lot of sticks on gloves and sticks on sticks to alter shots. Hopefully, we can do that in this game. It’s really tough to stop shooters when they have their hands free. So if you can limit their opportunities when their hands are free and limit the junk they get inside, then we have a fighting chance.”