The Wesleyan men’s lacrosse team looked right at home in its first-ever trip to the NCAA Division III tournament final.
Defying any preconceived notions about nerves in its first title-game appearance, the No. 9-ranked Cardinals scored the first four goals of the first quarter and then held off No. 3-ranked and 12-time reigning national champion Salisbury to secure an 8-6 victory and their first NCAA crown.
Wesleyan capped a memorable season with a 19-3 record that included defeating No. 2-ranked and New England Small College Athletic Conference archrival Tufts in the quarterfinals after losing to the three-time national titlist Jumbos in the regular season and conference postseason and upsetting No. 1 Rochester Institute of Technology in the semifinals.
The loss ended a 14-game winning streak for the Sea Gulls, who were aiming to collect their third straight NCAA crown and their 13th overall — which would have tied Hobart for the most championships by a Division III school. It marked only the second time since 2010 that Salisbury left the title game without the crown.
The Sea Gulls lost despite scooping up 39 ground balls to the Cardinals’ 23. But Wesleyan dominated shot totals at 40-28, Salisbury’s man-up offense whiffed on three opportunities, and five failed clears irked coach Jim Berkman.
“That’s very uncharacteristic of us,” he said. “Five possessions in a game like this is critical. We were 15-for-20, I believe, in clearing. And I’ve never been in a game where we dominated the ground balls so much. … We didn’t have the ball in the third quarter and we were still up by 16 ground balls. So that was kind of weird. And I thought we won a lot of faceoffs that we never won. We had the win, and we just couldn’t get the ball off the ground, especially in the third quarter, and I thought that was critical because we just didn’t get any opportunities on offense to break the zone.”
Yes, the zone. Wesleyan’s 3-3 zone defense helped cause 11 of the Sea Gulls’ game-high 15 turnovers and stymied the offense. Junior midfielder Zach Pompea led Salisbury with two goals and one assist, but the starting sophomore attack of Josh Melton, Pierre Armstrong and Griffin Moroney totaled only two goals on eight shots and three assists as the offense tied a season low in goals.
“We were really trying to swing the ball fast so we could find open looks in the middle,” Pompea said. “Our offense got a little stagnant at times, and we just didn’t move the ball fast enough to open up gaps for us to cut through, and sometimes we just stopped cutting. We had a few good looks, but we could have gotten more, I think. We just kind of struggled a little bit getting the ball into the middle of the zone.”
The Cardinals quickly dismissed any concerns about title-game anxiety by going on a 4-0 run, including three goals in the first 4:14. That opening helped settle the team.
“It wasn’t too big of a stage,” said Wesleyan coach John Raba, who said he received an email from 1975 graduate and current New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick about dealing with the pressure associated with a title game. “I think that was the biggest concern for a lot of people. We came out and we played Wesleyan lacrosse. That’s what we talked about.”
Salisbury responded with a 3-0 spurt of its own in a 2:25 stretch spanning the first and second quarters, but senior attackman Harry Stanton and junior attackman Carter Hawthorne executed a perfectly timed hidden ball trick behind the cage that ended with Stanton scoring easily over sophomore goalkeeper Brandon Warren to give Wesleyan a 5-3 lead into halftime.
Melton converted a feed from Armstrong to trim the deficit to 5-4 with 10:12 left in the third quarter, but the Cardinals closed out the period with three unanswered goals for an 8-4 advantage.
The Sea Gulls got goals from Moroney with 11:02 remaining and Pompea with 5:37 left to draw within two at 8-6. But they could not take advantage of a 30-second extra-man opportunity with 2:05 remaining, and Wesleyan withstood a 100-second stretch in which Salisbury launched nine shots, but seven missed the cage and two were blocked by sophomore goalie Otto Bohan.
Warren, a Forest Hill resident and Calvert Hall graduate, finished with 11 saves. Senior defenseman Kyle Tucker, who was named Division III’s outstanding defensive player of the year for the second year in a row on Thursday, added three ground balls and two caused turnovers, but he said the defense’s slow start contributed to the setback.
“We just let them do what they wanted early on, chaos, and they thrived on it,” he said. “Four goals was too much in the beginning.