By Steve Jones
The Stevenson men's lacrosse team began the push to its first national championship with a win over visiting Nazareth on a cold mid-February night. On May 26, the Mustangs reached the pinnacle, claiming Stevenson's first national title with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Rochester Institute of Technology in the brilliant sunshine of Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field.
On the way to the school's signature athletic achievement, Stevenson built its championship season with a series of important victories. Playing the most challenging schedule in Division III, coach Paul Cantabene's Mustangs recorded nine victories over Top 20 teams. Stevenson finished with a school-record 22 wins and wasn't far from an undefeated season, losing only one-goal decisions to Tufts and Roanoke.
"We were able to visualize and then attain success," said senior attackman Tyler Reid, who contributed 52 goals and 18 assists to a powerful Stevenson attack. "We had been heartbroken at the end of several seasons, and that feeling stayed with us. Our team was so close, and we were bred from the beginning of the season to deal with adversity.
The road to a championship is never easy, and Stevenson's journey was no different. During the regular season, Stevenson prevailed in overtime against RIT and Lynchburg, two teams that they would later meet in the NCAA Tournament. Stevenson also had to fend off Salisbury and conference foe Widener.
Despite all of the close victories over formidable opponents, the season's turning point may have been the overtime loss on April 9 at Roanoke.
"After the Roanoke game, we were livid and frustrated," said Reid. "We knew that we could let everything crumble and let the season slide away, or learn that we needed to execute the game plan for a full 60 minutes."
Motivated by the painful loss at Roanoke, Stevenson showed the true measure of a championship team in the postseason. The Mustangs held off a determined Widener squad, 9-8, in the Commonwealth Conference championship game. They began their NCAA Tournament run with an easy opening-round victory over Christopher Newport, and came from behind to defeat Washington College, 18-13, in a second-round matchup.
Stevenson then faced several teams that they had defeated in the regular season, and beat each of those squads by a greater margin. Lynchburg, which had dropped a 12-11 overtime decision at Stevenson in late March, fell to the Mustangs by a 13-7 count in the NCAA quarterfinals. That victory propelled Stevenson to its third NCAA semifinal appearance in four years against archrival Salisbury. The Mustangs, who had defeated the two-time defending champion Sea Gulls by a 10-8 score during the regular season, posted a convincing 12-6 victory over their archrivals to advance to their first national championship game.
"I thought our guys had a better understanding of our opponents the second time around," said Cantabene. "Toward the end of the season, we also weren't giving up goals in the fourth quarter like we had earlier."
Stevenson then traveled to the City of Brotherly Love for a rematch with RIT. The Mustangs ran out to a quick 5-0 lead, but RIT slowed Stevenson's offense, gradually chipped away at the lead, and took a 13-10 advantage into the final quarter.
"As fast as the game changes these days, we still had faith," said junior Kyle Holechek, Stevenson's first-team All-America defenseman. "It was not a matter of what we could do in the next five minutes, but what we could do in the next possession. We took down a lot of top teams during the season. Playing and beating those teams helps you when you're down by three goals after three quarters in the national championship game."
The Mustangs reversed their fortunes in the final 15 minutes. Led by junior faceoff specialist Brent Hiken, Stevenson controlled the ball throughout the quarter and outscored the Tigers by a 6-1 margin to clinch a 16-14 victory over an RIT team that had taken them to overtime on February 27.
"At the beginning of the fourth quarter, we started playing well and took the game to (RIT)," said Cantabene, who was named the national Division III Coach of the Year. "I thought we played with more energy."
Stevenson, which was honored by the Touchdown Club of Annapolis as the top lacrosse team in the state of Maryland, was the most complete and best-balanced squad in Division III. On the offensive end, the Mustangs set a school single-season record with 373 goals (15.5 per game). Reid was ably supported by his fellow attackmen, junior Chris Dashiell (33 goals, 53 assists) and sophomore transfer Mark Pannenton (62 goals, seven assists). Seniors Peter Green and Nick Rossi and sophomore Michael Crowe, who comprised the starting midfield unit, combined for 97 goals and 45 assists. The defensive trio of Holochek, senior Parker Bratton, and sophomore Callum Robinson, which held opponents to just 7.1 goals per game, assisted in the development of freshman goalkeeper Dimitri Pecunes, who saved over 57 percent of opponents' shots.
The Mustangs' faceoff specialists were the unsung heroes. Hiken, who controlled nearly every faceoff in the fourth quarter of the national championship game, and sophomore Sam Wyatt were the primary contributors to the team's sterling .685 success rate.
The ultimate irony awaits Stevenson next February, when the Mustangs will begin defense of their NCAA title against the same RIT team that they vanquished in the national championship game. Stevenson will host the Tigers on February 22 at Mustang Stadium.
"It gives some real value to the beginning of the season," said Holechek, one of six starters who will return next spring. "It's a matchup that everyone will be building up."