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. Friday's visit was with Salisbury. Monday's visit is with Stevenson.
The good: When it comes to memorable moments, it is difficult to top your university's first national championship in any sport. That is what the Mustangs brought home after outlasting Rochester Institute of Technology, 16-14, in the NCAA tournament final in Philadelphia on May 26. This year's squad was not coach Paul Cantabene's most talented or most skilled group, but it was his most cohesive unit. "I think this team was just more of a team," he said. "They got along better. There were no cliques, no selfishness. It didn't matter who scored the goal or anything like that. I think it was just more about the team. They really got along – from the seniors all the way down to the freshmen. Everybody got along and this team was the most selfless that we've ever had. Nobody really cared who made the big plays or how they happened. They sacrificed for everybody. I really thought that was a huge thing in how we came together this year. They worked for each other, were always there for each other. If somebody didn't make a good play, it didn't matter. It was one of the more positive teams that we've ever had. Nobody was pointing fingers. They were just really what you wanted as the definition of a team."
… While making its historic run, the team set a single-season record for wins (22) while absorbing just two losses. Stevenson, which ended the campaign on an 11-game winning streak, had not lost since April 9 when Roanoke emerged with a 14-13 decision in overtime. It was a bitter pill to swallow because the Mustangs had overcome a two-goal deficit in the fourth quarter with three straight tallies, but could not protect a one-goal lead in the final three minutes of regulation. But Cantabene pointed to that loss as the team's turning point. "We lost that game, and it was a game that we thought we should have won," he said. "We didn't play well and although we had the lead late, we gave it away. I really think that was the breaking point for our team because it told us that we had to really change things like how we played and what we were doing and how we were preparing to play each game. From that point, I really thought that our focus was a lot better, our team understood what we were trying to do, and they didn't really take anything for granted."
… A number of players had standout performances this past spring. Junior attackman Chris Dashiell paced the offense in scoring (86 points on 33 goals and 53 assists), senior midfielder Peter Green scored 39 goals after registering five as a short-stick defensive midfielder in 2012, freshman goalkeeper Dimitri Pecunes posted a 7.62 goals-against average and a .571 save percentage, and junior faceoff specialist Brent Hiken won 70.9 percent (202-of-285) of his draws and scooped up 133 ground balls. But Cantabene was pleased to see several non-starters contribute to the team's success. Players like fourth attackman Pat Candon (22 G, 28 A), second-line midfielder Billy Burgoyne (34 G, 6 A), sophomore faceoff specialist Sam Wyatt (66.5 percent on 177-of-266 and 111 GB) and freshman long-stick midfielder Chad Williams (25 GB, 18 CT) fueled the run to the NCAA title. "I think everybody picked and chose times to chip in when other guys weren't playing their best," Cantabene said.
The bad: Winning the national championship would seem to give a team a "get out of jail free" card, but that is not the approach that Cantabene is taking. The defense surrendered just 7.1 goals per game, but Cantabene was slightly distressed to see the unit permit Washington College to score 13 goals in a NCAA tournament second-round meeting and the Tigers to land 14 tallies in the championship final. "I still think we need to play a little better defense," he said. "Giving up 14 goals in a championship game is not what we want to do, and I think we gave up some higher numbers this year than we wanted to."
… The offense converted 28.5 percent of its shots, which ranked 77th among 203 programs in Division III. That would seem to be a decent showing, but Cantabene said that percentage could have been higher if the team had been more selective and efficient with its decisions. "It's obvious that I can't shoot the ball for them, but those guys have to make better decisions of where to shoot the ball and when to shoot the ball," he said. "I thought we shot at certain times when we just wanted to shoot the ball. Those are things that we need to work on in general. We had a lot of great opportunities when we could have scored more goals, and I think we just took some casual shots that cost us. I think we've just got to shoot to better spots and add that toughness to finish and be in a position to finish."
Personnel changes: The Mustangs graduated four starters, including attackman Tyler Reid, who compiled 52 goals and 18 assists. But finding a third starter to pair with Dashiell and sophomore Mark Pannenton (62 G, 7 A) may be as simple as turning to Candon. "Pat is a great player," Cantabene said. "We thought this past fall that he was our best attackman. And then he kind of came in and things didn't pan out for him well. But I thought Pat did a great job playing his role. Tyler and Pat were in our third attack spot, and they both did a great job. Pat scored some big goals. That's one of the things about him. He's not afraid of the moment, of coming in and playing well in high-pressure situations. So it's a great opportunity for him. We expect him to fill in that spot, but we have some other guys that we think are pretty good, too."
… The first midfield loses a pair of starters in Green (39 G, 15 A) and Nick Rossi (33 G, 13 A). But Burgoyne and junior Glen Tompkins (14 G, 14 A) are poised to join sophomore Michael Crowe (25 G, 17 A) on the starting midfield. "Billy on our second midfield line and Glen Tompkins on our second midfield line are guys that we think can take the next step," Cantabene said. "Billy scored 34 goals on our second midfield line and that's a lot. Billy's very, very talented. We need Billy to get a little tougher and make a few more smart decisions, but he has the talent to be a first-team All-American. He's just got to put it all together."
… The defense must find a new defenseman after the departure of Parker Bratton (52 GB, 22 CT). Fortunately for Cantabene, the roster is loaded with options that can fortify a unit anchored by Pecunes and a pair of starting defensemen in junior Kyle Holechek (74 GB, 32 CT) and sophomore Callum Robinson (73 GB, 35 CT). "We think we have some really good younger players coming up," Cantabene said. "[Freshman long-stick midfielder] Chad Williams is going to be excellent for us in that spot. [Sophomore defenseman] Ryan Salah, [freshman long-stick midfielder] Tony Roney are some young guys that played a lot for us. [Junior long-stick midfielder] Ryan Rubenstein could play some more close for us next year. We've got some really good young guys coming in. [Sophomore Josh] Rufolo from Essex [Community College] is transferring in. So we think we've got some guys that can fill that spot."
Forecast for 2014: Sunny. The Mustangs have talked openly about joining the likes of Salisbury, SUNY Cortland and Hobart as dynasties in Division III, and it would appear that the team is on the cusp of making that possibility a reality. Moving Candon into Reid's spot and promoting Burgoyne and Tompkins could keep the offense running without a hiccup. A defense that returns two starting short-stick defensive midfielders in sophomore Connor Curro (50 GB, 18 CT) and freshman Dylan Muti (19 GB, 5 CT) may hardly lose a step. And Hiken and Wyatt should keep the offense busy with plenty of possessions. The biggest question will revolve around how the players respond to the weight of trying to repeat as national champions. As Loyola coach Charley Toomey acknowledged this past spring, that burden can grow heavy and test the character and resolve of a team. Stevenson's 2014 schedule is littered with land mines, but expect the Mustangs to respond accordingly.