Here is the eighth and final installment of a series that checks in with the eight Division III programs in the state to give a glimpse into the past and the future. Teams are scheduled to appear according to the chronological order in which their seasons ended. Thursday's visit was with Stevenson. Friday's visit is with Salisbury.
The good: Seven different Sea Gulls teams have completed a perfect season by capturing the national championship. So how does the 2012 squad that went 23-0 overall and 8-0 in the Capital Athletic Conference stack up? "I think there are four teams that stick out," coach Jim Berkman said. "The '95 team was really good, the 2004 team was really good, and then 2007 and this team are probably the four best teams. But I still think that the '95 squad, when you're talking about pure dominance, there wasn't a single game that we didn't win by 10 goals. Even the championship game was 22-13 [against Nazareth], and that was one of the closest games we had. That was just unbelievable. But this team is right up there." … The presence of players like attackmen Matt Cannone, Erik Krum and Tony Mendes, and midfielders Sam Bradman and Ryan Clarke on offense, made it possible for a defense starting a new goalkeeper in sophomore Alex Taylor and a converted defenseman in Andrew Sellers to find its cohesion. Together, that group spawned the preseason sentiment that Salisbury could go unblemished, but that wasn't a certainty to Berkman. "I didn't know at any point if we were going to go undefeated, but I knew we had some offensive players that on any given day could help us beat anybody if they were on," he said. "Luckily, we were fortunate to answer the bell at all times. We had a pretty good squad with good players at each position. We felt like we had a good chance against anybody. That's not saying that we couldn't have gotten beat, but it was going to take a real good game by somebody else or take some awfully good goalie play." … After a season-opening 19-6 rout of Greensboro, the Sea Gulls put together back-to-back thumpings of then-No. 11 Lynchburg (16-7 on Feb. 18) and then-No. 2 Roanoke (22-5 on Feb. 25). Berkman said those two contests set the stage for a defense that finished the year ranked second in Division III. "We knew we were going to score goals, but I think it set the tone as far as the emergence of Alex Taylor in the cage and [sophomores] Zeke Smith and Danny Sherr on defense and kind of said, 'We're going to be alright on defense after holding Roanoke to five and Lynchburg to seven goals,'" Berkman recalled. "I think that gave a lot of confidence to the other players that defensively, we were going to be pretty good because those guys were a little bit untested."
The bad: The rare moment of vulnerability for Salisbury took place on April 14 as Stevenson took a 9-3 advantage with 52 seconds left in the third quarter and held a 10-8 lead with 5:28 remaining in the fourth. The Sea Gulls managed to emerge with an 11-10 decision and used that momentary scare as a reminder of every team's fallibility. "That game gave us confidence that we could come back in a tough environment," Berkman told Inside Lacrosse. "It showed the fortitude to keep working hard, and good things would come. It probably also gave us more opportunities to play at home." … The NCAA tournament final against SUNY Cortland didn't go quite as easily as some may have expected. The Red Dragons actually had two one-goal leads in the first quarter and tied the score in the second and third periods before Salisbury pulled away with a 4-1 fourth quarter. "Every time we made a mistake today, they made us pay," Berkman noted after the team's 14-10 victory. "We didn't get back after a shot, they made us pay. We split up the field too early on a break, and boom, next thing you know, the ball was in the back of the goal. We got backdoored on a shutoff on a ride when a kid was ball-watching, and boom, they scored a goal."
Personnel changes: The program graduated 18 seniors, including its entire starting attack of Cannone (Division III's Outstanding Attackman of the Year who posted 63 goals and 67 assists), Krum (67 G, 23 A) and Mendes (33 G, 22 A). Sophomore Rhett DePol (9 G, 8 A) and junior Matt Pierotti appear poised to step into a starting role, but do the Sea Gulls have enough in the cupboard to reload? "We definitely have a little offense to replace, but we have some guys that have been waiting that are pretty good and we have some pretty good new guys coming in, especially at midfield," Berkman said. "So it's going to be an exciting year to coach because a lot of people have to prove themselves and we're really going to have to coach them up next year." … The team also said farewell to Bradman, the national player of the year and the Outstanding Midfielder of the Year who amassed 71 goals and 28 assists and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row. Berkman is confident that he will find the talent to replenish the unit, but also acknowledged that much of the scoring burden will be on junior Ryan Clarke (35 G, 29 A). "He's a kid who wanted to be the man last year at times," Berkman said. "When you look at returners, he's definitely one of the top five players in the country returning for Division III, that's for sure." … Sellers' departure saps the team of its top shutdown defenseman (and 53 ground balls and 27 caused turnovers). But Berkman is encouraged by the progress that Smith (63 GB, 50 CT) and Sherr (20 GB, 11 CT) made and likes what he saw from freshman Knute Kraus (18 GB, 9 CT). "He's a very athletic lefty and is right there," Berkman said of Kraus. "And he's a big kid – about 6-4, 200 pounds. So with him and Smith (6-4, 210) and Sherr (6-2, 200), we're going to have a D-1 size defense. So I think we should be pretty solid on close defense. [Junior Brett] Baer is waiting right there at long stick. And we've got a few guys coming in that are going to help out a lot, too."