Saturday's showdown between No. 2 Stevenson and No. 3 Salisbury is a prime opportunity for both sides.
For the Mustangs (13-1), a win would extend their winning streak to 13 games and reaffirm their status as the reigning Division III national champion. For the Sea Gulls (15-1), a victory would serve as a vivid reminder that the program that has captured 10 NCAA championships is getting closer to adding No. 11 to the trophy case.
For both teams, a victory would likely mean the top seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament. Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene said a regional rankings report he received puts Salisbury at No. 1 and the Mustangs at No. 2.
"Obviously, it's a pretty important game for seedings and stuff like that," he said on Thursday morning. "… So whoever wins this game has a really good shot at being the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. So it's obviously a big game in that aspect. But it's just another big game that we've played all year. It's no bigger than Tufts, it's no bigger than Cortland or Nazareth or Lynchburg or Roanoke. It's another big game, but this game will have some significance as to how the NCAA tournament can go. It's also a big game knowing how it has played out nationally over the years. It's led to being one of the better games. So I think everybody's going to be excited to play in it. I think one of the reasons why kids go to Stevenson and go to Salisbury is because they want to play in this type of game and this type of atmosphere."
Added Sea Gulls coach Jim Berkman: "Obviously, there's the potential that the winner of this game is going to be the No. 1 seed in the South for the NCAA tournament. That's a pretty good carrot for the game."
Stevenson swept Salisbury in two meetings last year and improved to 6-7 against them since 2009. But Berkman said the inference that the impact of last year's losses is overrated.
"I just think that the rivalry of the game exceeds anything," he said. "The rivalry to play in this game and the rivalry to beat the opponent is the motivation, not what happened in the past. There have been a lot of great battles, great games, and you want to win this game."
Whatever happens Saturday, the coaches agreed that it won't be the final chapter in their teams' campaigns. Salisbury is the top seed in the Capital Athletic Conference tournament, while the Mustangs are the No. 1 seed in the Commonwealth Conference tournament. And both schools are shoo-ins for the NCAA tournament.