Here is the sixth 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. Tuesday's visit was with Goucher. Wednesday's visit is with Stevenson.
The good: According to LaxPower.com, the Mustangs played the 21st-toughest schedule in the nation, which was the same ranking as their 2013 schedule. In both years, the team played against seven opponents in the regular season that qualified for the NCAA tournament, but this past spring's schedule included a five-game stretch in 10 days in which the squad defeated four perennial contenders in Roanoke, eventual 2014 national champion Tufts, Nazareth and SUNY-Cortland.
"I think we tested them, especially in that five-game stretch where we played five excellent teams in 10 days – Tufts, Nazareth, Cortland, Roanoke," coach Paul Cantabene said. "I thought we did a great job of playing that schedule, and we're going to play it again next year. … I think it's even tougher now than a year ago. We like who we play, we like those tough games, and we want to play the best teams week in and week out. So we really test our guys to go out there and perform."
**Stevenson's 10th-ranked offense at 14.5 goals per game was buoyed by the resurgence of the team's extra-man unit. The man-up offense raised its success rate of 30.9 percent (43-of-139) in 2013 to 44.6 percent (62-of-139) in 2014, which ranked as the eighth-most potent unit in the country. After no player reached double digits in extra-man goals in 2013, four players did this past spring. Cantabene credited the cohesion among the players on the extra-man unit for their success.
"I think we shot the ball better on EMOs, but I think most of it was that the chemistry on EMOs was much better this year," he said. "We moved the ball very well, and it didn't matter who scored goals for us. The guys just did a great job of reading the defense and moving the ball to the guy who had the best shot. Chemistry is really what you look for on your man-up. You can have all of the greatest shooters in the world, but you're not going to score a lot of goals if they don't get along. But these guys really got along."
**The Mustangs' reliance on young players was well-founded. Freshman attackman Edward McLoughlin made six starts and recorded four goals and one assist before giving way to freshman Tyler Fuhrman, who started 14 games and posted 20 goals and nine assists. Freshman midfielder Kyle D'Onofrio registered six goals and three assists, and sophomore midfielders Joe Balestrieri (22 G, 4 A) and Alex Hardwick (8 G, 1 A) also made contributions. Their emergence was a positive sign for Cantabene.
"I think we have a really bright future with some of these younger guys who got some quality minutes," he said. "So we're really happy with how the younger guys developed over the course of the year and learned our culture and what we need to do to get better every day."
The bad: Stevenson's bid to join Hobart, Middlebury, Nazareth and Salisbury as the only programs to capture back-to-back NCAA titles fell short as the 2013 national champion was turned back by Washington College, 12-11, on May 14 in the tournament quarterfinals. It was a sudden and disappointing finish for the team and re-emphasized to Cantabene the difficulty of trying to repeat.
"It's tough to be the defending champion," he said. "There's a lot of pressure, and you've got to realize that as the defending champion, you get everybody's best games every day, and I think at times we really struggled with that and playing with that. But I thought as the year went on, we did a great job and got better with it. Unfortunately, things didn't go our way at the end of the year, but we still had a great year and played really well. We lost to a very good Washington College team, which had an outstanding year. We just didn't make enough plays. We've got to regroup and get refocused."
**Although the offense fared well nationally, its shooting percentage took a tumble. After converting 28.5 percent (373-of-1,307) of its shots to rank 77th among 209 programs in Division III in 2013, the unit dropped to 24.8 percent (319-of-1,284) and the 149th ranking in the country. Cantabene said the team must be more opportunistic.
"I don't think we did a great job of finishing our easy ones," he said. "I thought we had a lot of easy goals, and I thought we missed some of them and that really came back to haunt us. We didn't shot the ball particularly smart at goalies. I think we shot at goalies and made them become hot. We have to be careful with that. We get so many good shots because of the way we play our offense, but we didn't do that this year and that came back to haunt us. We really need to shoot around 30 to 35 percent to win this thing."
**Fourth quarters were not the strongest periods for the Mustangs. They failed to protect a six-goal advantage with 11 minutes, 33 seconds left in regulation in a 15-14 overtime loss to the Rochester Institute of Technology on Feb. 22; watched Salisbury score the final quarter's first three goals to break an 8-8 tie after three periods en route to an 11-9 decision on April 19; and surrendered a goal with 22 seconds left in the loss to the Shoremen in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals. Cantabene said the team appeared to lack confidence in tight finishes in the final periods.
"I didn't think that when the games were on the line that we played with as much confidence as we did in the past," he said. "I thought we played a little tight, and that's why we kind of lost those games. We just weren't as comfortable when the game was on the line compared to past years. Those three games that we lost were games that we would win in other years because we were so confident on the offensive end. I just didn't think we were as confident when the games were on the line and we played a little nervous, and that came back to haunt us a little bit. I think we need to get a little better leadership with our guys and become a little more accountable, and if we can do that, I think we'll be all right."
Personnel changes: Stevenson graduated just three starters, but one is attackman Chris Dashiell, who led the team in assists (43) and ranked second in points (63). His departure could be massaged by the potential return of junior attackmen Mark Pannenton (62 G, 7 A in 2013) and Pat Candon (22 G, 28 A in 2013), but Cantabene acknowledged that replacing Dashiell's leadership will be a priority.
"What we'll miss most with Chris is just his leadership and how he ran our offense and kept everybody in line," Cantabene said. "Hopefully, we can have one of the guys coming in or especially [sophomore attackman] Stephen Banick come in and be able to take that role as our quarterback on the offense and settle everybody down. Chris was so good at doing that, and you really need somebody to be able to control everything while they're out there."
**A defense that ranked 25th in the country after allowing just 7.2 goals per game graduated a pair of starters in defenseman Kyle Holechek (70 ground balls and 49 caused turnovers) and long-stick midfielder Ryan Rubenstein (23 GB, 15 CT). Juniors Kyle McNamara (36 GB, 11 CT) and Josh Rufolo (24 GB, 23 CT) are the most likely candidates to start on close defense and long-stick midfield, respectively, but Cantabene said he does not expect McNamara to match what Holechek did.
"Holechek was a very special player," Cantabene said. "He was a two-time first-team All-American defensive player. He was so smart and had such a great stick and knocked everything down. He would guard fast guys, strong guys and did so much for us, especially calling out the defenses. So I don't necessarily think that we'll replace him, but we've got to find a couple guys who can maybe do what he did."
**The Mustangs led Division III in faceoff percentage at 70.9 percent (389-of-549), and a good deal of the credit should go to Brent Hiken, who ranked second in the country at 72.0 percent (250-of-347) and collected 178 ground balls. Hiken's graduation leaves behind a significant hole, but Cantabene is confident that the trio of junior Sam Wyatt (66.5 percent on 177-of-266 and 111 GB in 2013 before becoming a second-line midfielder this past spring), sophomore Justin Buonomo (65.8 percent on 96-of-146 and 79 GB) and freshman Nathan Leguang (80.5 percent on 33-of-41 and 18 GB) can handle the faceoff duties.
"Obviously, we're going to miss a guy like Brent Hiken, who could control the game," Cantabene said. "But there are other guys there, and I think we'll continue to be very good at that position."
Forecast for 2015: Sunny. Stevenson got a harsh dose of reality regarding the difficulty of repeating as national champion, but the program still has plenty of room to grow heading into next season. Aside from a little instability on attack, the midfield returns four players who scored at least 22 goals each. And the defense appears to be well-stocked with the likes of sophomore defenseman Callum Robinson (74 GB, 36 CT), sophomore goalkeeper Dimitri Pecunes (7.58 goals-against average and a .538 save percentage) and a pair of short-stick defensive midfielders in junior Connor Curro (57 GB, 18 CT) and sophomore Dylan Muti (38 GB, 10 CT). But as the Mustangs have improved, so too have their opponents, and the likes of Salisbury, Cabrini and SUNY-Cortland won't make it easy for the 2013 NCAA titlists to return to the top.