COLLEGE PARK — COLLEGE PARK - This is where everybody expected to see top-ranked Salisbury State University at the end of the season - defending its title in the NCAA Division III championship game today at Byrd Stadium.
The Sea Gulls (17-1) are entering their fifth national championship game in less than a decade and are trying to win back-to-back championships for the second time in school history. Salisbury won its first two titles in 1994 and 1995.
"We are going there [Byrd] with a purpose," Salisbury coach Jim Berkman said. "We are not just going up there to be there. We are going up there to be champions."
The Sea Gulls will have to go through an athletic Middlebury squad for the second year in a row; Salisbury beat the Panthers, 13-6, in last year's championship.
"I'm not comparing anything to last year," Salisbury senior captain Chris Turner said.
"Last year was last year. This year it's a new game and a new team. They have a lot of good athletes and players. It's going to be a battle."
The Panthers (14-1) are fifth-ranked despite having a young attack. The Vermont team gave second-ranked Nazareth College its first loss of the year in last weekend's 13-8 semifinal upset on the road
"We took a lot away from last year's game," Middlebury coach Erin Quinn said. "We watched Salisbury take advantage of their athletic ability more than we did."
Byrd Stadium has been the Sea Gulls' home away from home in the postseason. Under Berkman, the Gulls are 3-0 in national title games in Maryland's football stadium.
The Sea Gulls are making their 12th consecutive appearance in the postseason and their record 18th trip overall.
"The pressure is going to be huge," Salisbury goalkeeper John Dodson said. "This is it for us; it's either do or die. It's definitely a lot of pressure but we have to stay focused and play our game."
Both teams rely on their athleticism, speed, skills and depth. Middlebury and Salisbury also have two of the deepest midfield units in the country, which should make the game highly energized as they go up and down the field.
"They pressure a lot. They get out and play a lot like we do," Berkman said.
"They have more guys in the middle of the field this year. They are not going to get tired."
Senior attackman Joe High (Dulaney) will make camp on the crease for the Sea Gulls. He leads the team with 74 goals and 21 assists.
High's supporting cast includes senior Rob Bates (Severna Park) and Kevin Fox, who have both tallied 23 goals and 11 assists. Freshman Craig Rhodey (Calvert Hall) is third on the team in scoring with 34 goals and 15 assists.
Turner (Arundel), 1999's Division III Midfielder of the Year, leads the first-line midfield unit with 42 goals and 27 assists. Teammate Tim Parks (John Carroll) helps him form a talented 1-2 punch.
Salisbury's veteran-oriented defense brings a 6.1 goals-against average into the contest - ranked third in the nation.
The Sea Gulls are led by All-Americans Hirbod Azmi and Mark Brier. Senior goalkeeper Dodson and sophomore Pat Tewes (Severna Park) will continue to rotate during the halves.
Middlebury is more experienced on defense than on the attack. Senior defenseman Jed Raymond returns to the Panthers after being named last season's Player of the Year. Senior All-American goalkeeper Dave Campbell has been strong in the postseason, posting a 7.22-goals-against average.
Junior attackman Holt Hopkins (Boys Latin) is Middlebury's top gun on the offensive side with 53 goals and 10 assists. First-line sophomores David Seeley (36 goals, 19 assists) and Zach Hebert (35 goals, 13 assists) rank second and third in scoring for the Panthers.
"Only two teams make it to the championship and one has to lose; hopefully it's not us," Parks said. "There are a lot of seniors [15 total] that don't want to go there and lose."