Review & preview: Stevenson men’s lacrosse

The Stevenson men's lacrosse team's decision to move Ethan Christensen (white jersey) from the midfield to the attack paid huge dividends as the sophomore led the offense in assists and ranked second in points.
The Stevenson men's lacrosse team's decision to move Ethan Christensen (white jersey) from the midfield to the attack paid huge dividends as the sophomore led the offense in assists and ranked second in points. (Sabina Moran / Stevenson Athletics)

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 with a 12-7 overall record and an 8-0 mark in the Middle Atlantic Conference Commonwealth.


The good: Six years, six MAC Commonwealth tournament crowns and automatic qualifiers to the NCAA Division III tournament for the Mustangs. The run includes a 48-0 record in the regular season in the league, but there have been some close calls. Stevenson beat Lebanon Valley, 9-7, on April 18, and Widener’s rally fell short in an 11-10 Mustangs win April 27. So coach Paul Cantabene maintains a certain level of appreciation for the championships the program has collected.


“It never gets old,” he said. “Winning conference championships are tough no matter what conference you’re in or how many times you’ve won in a row. It’s a tough thing to do, and we have our challenges every year with an ever-improving MAC conference. Messiah has done a great job of getting better, and Widener has done a great job of getting better, and Lebanon Valley and Lycoming are all getting better. It’s good, but it’s hard to do and we like winning the conference. I think our guys understand conference play and how to handle it and put themselves in a good spot.”

The Stevenson men’s lacrosse defense could not be as aggressive as it had been after losing five defensemen to a multitude of injuries in the first five games of the 2018 season.

» An offense that ranked 18th in the country at 14.8 goals per game got a ton of help from one of the top faceoff units in the nation. Stevenson won 70.6 percent of its draws (369 of 523) to rank third – earning the program’s best finish since 2014 when that squad led all of Division III at 70.9 percent (389 of 549). Sophomore Justin Burnette ranked fourth among individual faceoff specialists at 71.0 percent (320 of 451) and eighth in ground balls per game at 9.5., and Cantabene said the Baltimore resident and Owings Mills graduate proved his freshman performance of 62.6 percent (219 of 350) and 4.4 ground balls per game was no fluke.


“We’ve got good wing play, and Justin’s done a great job of getting better each year and understanding how to approach each faceoff, and he goes against good guys each time,” Cantabene said. “There are no days off for him. But we really approach it as a team concept, and it’s worked out really well for us. Winning all those faceoffs really helped us this year, especially considering the injuries that we had. Justin did a great job.”

» Burnette was one of seven Mustangs to earn All-American honorable-mention status this past spring. Junior attackman J.T. Thelen racked up team highs in both goals (70) and points (99), and the latter was the second-highest total in the program’s single-season history. Seniors Harrison Faecher (30 goals, 20 assists) and Kyle Karsian (29 G, 12 A) emerged as threats from the midfield. But the most startling development was from sophomore attackman Ethan Christensen, who built on a 14-goal, 17-assist season in 2017 with a 46-goal, 35-assist effort in 2018. His 35 assists were a team best.

“He was a midfielder for us, and we had to change him to attack with some of the injuries that we had also at the attack position,” Cantabene said of Christensen. “He did a great job of fitting in there.”

The bad: Stevenson has now gone four years in a row without advancing out of the first weekend of the NCAA Division III tournament after losing, 15-12, in the second round at Ithaca and is 2-4 in the postseason over that span. Armed with a 7-5 advantage with 12 seconds left in the second quarter, the team had no response as the Bombers scored five consecutive goals – including one with no time remaining in the first half – and took a lead they would not relinquish. Cantabene conceded falling to Ithaca was a disheartening outcome.

“We thought we could have gotten that game if we had a few things differently, but in the end, we just couldn’t make the changes that we needed to do defensively in order to win that game,” he said. “Without being able to get out and pressure them, that kind of got away from us. We had a few opportunities to score some big goals, and we hit a couple pipes, and the goalie made a couple good saves, and they converted their chances at the other end. So it was disappointing.”

» The team opened the season with five straight losses, and two were decided by one goal and two were decided by two goals. Add the setback to Ithaca, and five of the Mustangs’ losses were decided by no more than three goals. No one can say with definitive authority that flipping one of those losses into victories might have dramatically changed the year, but Cantabene acknowledged the frustration associated with being unable to secure narrow wins.

“We thought we could have won that game, but Ithaca played great and at times, things just didn’t go our way,” he said, referring to the NCAA tournament setback. “We had seven losses, and five of them were three-goal games. If we win those five games, it’s a totally different year, but this year unfortunately, the closer games didn’t go our way.”

» The defense allowed a respectable 9.5 goals per game this past spring, but one area that faltered was the man-down unit. Stevenson killed off 67.5 percent of opponents’ extra-man opportunities (54 of 80), which ranked fifth in the MAC Commonwealth and 156th in the country. Cantabene pointed out that within the first five games, the defense lost five players – seniors Dominic DeFazio, Dylan Harris and Joe Candon and juniors Luke Brown and Ryan Troxell – to a variety of season-ending injuries, and those absences affected the man-down defense’s performance.

“All those guys we lost were starters on our man-down unit, and you’re putting different guys in there, guys that weren’t as experienced, and it was their first time playing in those situations,” Cantabene said. “So it definitely hurt with the things we do because Dom and Dylan have such great sticks and can knock down passes and get the ball off the ground. Those are the kinds of things that you can’t really replace, and that kind of hurt us in those situations.”


Personnel changes: Graduation relieved the first midfield of Faecher and Karsian, and Faecher convincingly outpaced his totals of seven goals and four assists in the first three years of his career. Cantabene tabbed junior Chris Hammerquist (12 G, 9 A) and sophomore Collin Tucker (9 G, 1 A) as the leading candidates to join junior Gray McKee (19 G, 14 A) as starters. But he also noted that the offense is expected to welcome back at least four more midfielders.

“We get all of those guys back, and we think that can be a pretty good unit,” Cantabene said. “I think we’ll be a lot deeper. Guys like Chris Hammerquist will be able to bump up. Collin Tucker, [sophomore] Danny Buckwalter, [freshman] John Harrington are all guys that will be able to step up and play for us.”


» The defense bade farewell to a pair of starters in Austin Howard (38 ground balls, 18 caused turnovers) and Tom Brown (33 GB, 15 CT). That would ordinarily be cause for concern, but Cantabene said DeFazio, Harris (South Carroll), Candon, Luke Brown (Boys’ Latin) and Troxell (Westminster) have been granted medical redshirts and will be eligible to return next season. Suddenly, the vacant spots next to sophomore defenseman Andrew Kosco (25 GB, 15 CT) no longer look empty.


“Getting all those guys back will be great,” Cantabene said. “Getting all of them back healthy is going to be a big part of what we do. So we’re really looking forward to being able to get those guys back and play well. That’s really going to give us a leg up going into next year.”

» Dan Halla did not get that many reps because of how well Burnette had played, but the faceoff specialist won 68.1 percent (32 of 47) of his draws and picked up 15 ground balls. And Halla provided Burnette with some valuable competition in practices. Burnette should get the overwhelming majority of next season’s faceoffs, but Cantabene said he expects freshman Shiloh Shassian and juniors Chris Varnardo and Rocco Bruno (Boys’ Latin) to push Burnette for playing time.

“We’ve got a couple guys that we think are pretty good behind him,” Cantabene said. “Justin was so dominant, but we have two or three guys behind him and another freshman coming in that we think are pretty good, and they kind of push him every day in practice. We’ve got a couple of good guys waiting in the wings once Justin is done.”

Forecast for 2019: Cloudy. The good news is that Stevenson is set to bring back eight of its top 10 scorers, and the offense should be in good hands courtesy of the starting attack of Thelen, Christensen and freshman Jacob Tatum (29 G, 16 A). Sophomore goalkeeper Sam Ross (9.38 goals-against average, .543 save percentage) will anchor the defense, which can only hope the five injured defensemen can recover quickly enough to participate in fall workouts. As much as Widener and Messiah have made strides, the Mustangs should be the favorite once again in the MAC Commonwealth.

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