Here is the seventh 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. Wednesday's visit was with Goucher. Thursday's visit is with Stevenson, which finished 14-6 overall and 8-0 in the Middle Atlantic Conference Commonwealth.
The good: The Mustangs enjoyed more successes than failures, but there was cause for a few moments of introspection. A season-opening 16-13 loss to the Rochester Institute of Technology was the team's fourth consecutive setback to the Tigers. A three-game winning streak was followed by a pair of losses, and a seven-game run was spoiled by back-to-back setbacks. Still, coach Paul Cantabene appreciated the players' demeanor against one of the most difficult schedules in Division III.
"I think they were very optimistic all of the time," he said. "We play a very tough schedule, tougher than most schools, and I think doing that is sometimes good for us and sometimes isn't good for us because we play good schools and good teams. But I think their attitude overall was very positive for most of the season, and they did a good job wanting to win and doing what it took to win."
» Last year's man-down defense killed off 70.1 percent of opponents' extra-man chances, which ranked 135th out of 223 Division III schools. This past spring, the man-down unit killed off 77.1 percent to rank 41st. Nonconference teams converted 28.0 percent (14 of 50) of their opportunities, while MAC Commonwealth opponents fared much worse at 15.2 percent (five of 33). Cantabene said under the direction of defensive coordinator Tim Puls, the defensive players were determined to hone their game in man-down situations this season.
"I think they took a lot of pride in it this year," he said. "They did a great job of getting in people's hands and not giving up easy shots. So I think they did a very good job of understanding how to play and how to play as a unit. They did a good job, and it wasn't just one guy doing it, but everybody playing together as a unit. I think that really separated us as a man-down defense."
» In 11 games as a freshman, J.T. Thelen totaled 14 points on nine goals and five assists. This past spring in his debut as a full-time starting attackman, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Thelen exploded, leading the offense in both goals (54) and assists (27). Thelen was a revelation for an attack that had graduated Stephen Banick (35 goals and 36 assists in 2016) and Matt Tompkins (48 G, 14 A).
"I thought J.T. Thelen had a great year for us at attack," Cantabene said. "He didn't get as many honors as everybody else, but as a sophomore scoring over 80 points, he did a really good job. He became a known quantity and was getting everybody's best guy, and I thought he did a great job."
The bad: For the third year in a row, Stevenson did not make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Division III tournament, falling, 17-8, in the second round to RIT, the top seed in the North Region. The team did not help itself, sliding into a 7-1 deficit within the first eight minutes of the game. Early holes were a problem as the Mustangs trailed in the first half in four of their six losses.
"I think at times this year, we just kind of started out slow a little bit, and in that game, we got down 7-1," Cantabene said. "We came all the way back to 11-7 [after three quarters] and hit a pipe, and then they kind of made some plays. They're a good team, and I think we were a good team. It's always disappointing losing to those guys, and unfortunately, we've lost to them a few times in a row now. But we'll try to get them back next year. But I think the guys gave it a good effort. It wasn't as successful as we would like it to be, but I think we're going to be better off for it in the future."
» Last year's squad ranked 15th in the nation in clearing thanks to an 87.3 success rate. But this past spring, that percentage dipped to 82.3, which was reflected in a No. 78 ranking. Stevenson actually improved in the turnovers department (16.7 per game in 2016 to 15.9 in 2017), but Cantabene acknowledged that clearing the ball was one of the team's biggest deficiencies.
"We didn't do a great job," he said. "I thought that was one of the weaker parts of our game. We really struggled and did not clear the ball well. I just think at times our defensemen panicked or our [defensive midfielders] panicked, and we didn't necessarily do a great job. We gave a lot of teams second chances in our clearing game, and we have to be in the 90s [percentage-wise] to be successful. This year was not a great clearing year for us, and we have to work harder at that."
» The offense was more effective, scoring 14.6 goals per game from 13.1 last season and improving in ranking to 19th from 29th. But the unit did not get much aid from the man-up offense. That specialty converted only 29.7 percent (27 of 91) of its opportunities compared to a 37.4 success rate (37 of 99) in 2016. The extra-man unit went only 5-for-25 in its last seven games — three of which resulted in losses.
"I just think we didn't shoot the ball as well," Cantabene said. "I think we got some really good shots, and we just didn't finish the opportunities, and that's kind of been the case for us all year. We got great opportunities, but we just weren't finishing the opportunities we needed to finish to win. We got the opportunities we wanted, we got the number of shots that we wanted, but we just weren't able to put these things away and put pressure on teams. I thought we had the personnel. We changed it up at times, but at times, we got the shots, but we just didn't finish them nearly at the level that we needed to do."
Personnel changes: The Mustangs' biggest loss via graduation is senior midfielder Kyle D'Onofrio, who ranked second on the team in both goals (50) and assists (24). The Fallston graduate, who also ranked fourth on the team in ground balls (51) thanks to his prowess on faceoff wings, will be difficult to replace, but Cantabene said the coaches are considering shifting junior Brandon Watson (18 G, 20 A) from attack to join junior Kyle Karsian (34 G, 15 A) and freshman Ethan Christensen (14 G, 17 A) in the first midfield.
"We have some guys coming in next year, and I think moving Brandon Watson to the midfield will help as a senior," Cantabene said. "Ethan Christensen is going to come back, and he was in the first midfield all year as a freshman. Kyle Karsian, [junior] Harrison Faecher and Bryce Spruill and [sophomores] Gray McKee and Chris Hammerquist and [freshman] Collin Tucker are all guys that we think can step up."
» The offense was further depleted by the graduation of attackman Wade Korvin, who ranked third on the team in goals (37), points (55) and caused turnovers (15). If Stevenson does stick to the plan of moving Watson to midfield, that would leave two openings next to Thelen on attack. Cantabene cited freshmen Preston Faecher (2 G, 1 A), Colin Mason (2 G, 1 A) and Matt Bowman as potential starters.
"Those are three guys that can step right in and play right away," he said. "I think those guys are going to be pretty good players for us. … I think what we do a good job of is developing kids, and when it's their time to play, they're able to step in and play."
» Defensively, the Mustangs graduated starting defenseman Drew Cormode (37 ground balls and 11 caused turnovers), but either sophomore Chazz Collison (22 GB, 5 CT) or senior Tom Brown (23 GB, 11 CT) — if he can appeal for another year of eligibility — can fill that opening. The larger hole is in the cage where Ross Dinan graduated after finishing with an 8.58 goals-against average and a .490 save percentage. Without naming names, Cantabene said there are five candidates for the vacancy with perhaps one as the standout.
"I think we've just got to be more consistent at goalie next year," he said. "We have to get the saves we need. We thought Ross Dinan at the end of the year played really well, but he didn't start really playing his best lacrosse until the end of the season. We have to be pretty good at that position from the start of the season and hopefully, all of our goalies coming in will be able to do that."
Forecast for 2018: Cloudy. Stevenson enjoyed another double-digit wins total courtesy of a knack for keeping opponents off the scoreboard. The defense should continue to remain strong thanks to the return of junior defenseman and MAC Commonwealth Defensive Player of the Year Dominic DeFazio (69 GB, 44 CT), junior defenseman Dylan Harris (60 GB, 26 CT) and junior long-stick midfielder Lito Flanagan (20 GB, 2 CT in three games). The offense is the larger concern with the graduation of attackman Tyler Fuhrman (31 G, 2 A) and midfielders Sean Ohlhaver (21 G, 3 A) and Morgan Pritchett (13 G, 2 A) in addition to D'Onofrio and Korvin. And for all of its success in the regular season and conference, the program has not reached the NCAA tournament quarterfinals since 2014 and the semifinals since 2013. Reversing that trend is the most significant hurdle for the Mustangs.