SUNY-Cortland vs. Salisbury: Three things to watch

These teams have split the previous 10 meetings, but Salisbury has won the last three contests. They’ve met five times in the NCAA tournament, and the Sea Gulls are 3-2, including 2-1 in the title game. SUNY-Cortland (21-0) is making its seventh finals appearance, won crowns in 2006 and 2009, and beat Stevens Institute, 10-9, in the second round, Union, 9-4, in the quarterfinals, and Tufts, 12-10, in the semifinals. Nine-time reigning national champion Salisbury (22-0) has won 27 straight, is in the finals for the 14th time, and defeated Goucher, 12-4, in the second round, Cabrini, 14-4, in the quarterfinals, and Stevenson, 7-2, in the semifinals. Here are a few factors that could play a role in the outcome of this NCAA tournament final at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday afternoon.

1) Cortland’s defense. It would appear that Salisbury’s offense got a good reminder of the power of patience in the five-goal victory over Stevenson as the unit was forced to wait until the second half before pulling away from the Mustangs. The Sea Gulls get another test in the Red Dragons, who rank fourth in Division III for allowing just 5.5 goals per game this season. But Salisbury coach Jim Berkman said Cortland’s defense is much different from Stevenson’s. “Stevenson comes out, they force you to your off-hand extremely hard, they’re way out of the box. They slide [so] early, it’s almost like they’re pre-rotated,” he said. “They’ve got great length on their perimeter defenders that steal passes. They just try to create a lot more chaos. The Cortland team is more disciplined, a we’re-going-to-defend-you-in-a-certain-area-and-we’re-going-to-defend-you-real-well. [They’re] not going to get over-extended, [they’re] not going to foul, [they’re] going to slide intelligently to the guys that [they] choose to slide to. And on top of that, they have great individual defenders. It’s a little bit of a different defensive package to play, but both definitely have outstanding defenses.”

2) Salisbury’s makeover. The Sea Gulls boast the most explosive offense in the country, averaging 17.6 goals this spring. They love to pounce on mistakes and turn them into fastbreak or transition opportunities. But Salisbury has also proven that it can operate from six-on-six sets, and Red Dragons coach Steve Beville said his players must be aware of the Sea Gulls’ ability to operate in settled and unsettled situations. “That was their M.O.,” he said. “They were going to come out and pressure and play a fast-paced transition game, and that’s really changed this year. They’re outstanding on defense. You notice they help out a lot more, they’re in a help-out position. They push out less, but I don’t think it’s a matter of them having less athletes. I think it’s just a slight change in philosophy with Jim and his staff. They’re outstanding on defense. They will run, but they’ve proven that they’re able to run a slowdown game as well.”

3) Cortland’s ride. The Red Dragons have thrived off of making it difficult for opponents to transition from defense to offense. In three NCAA tournament contests, Stevens Institute, Union and Tufts combined to clear the ball 80 percent of the time. For the season, opponents have cleared 74.9 percent, failing on 105-of-418 attempts. Salisbury must pierce Cortland’s rude and get the ball to the offense. “Cortland traditionally is a really good riding team after a save, and they take some risks by leaving people on the field and they jump down on you,” Berkman said. “Obviously, we have to pay attention to that, and that’s no different from when we played them five years ago. They did a very similar style. … Obviously, we’ll be watching a lot of tape to make sure that we’ve got good matchups for our strengths defensively to hopefully negate some of their offense.”

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