Rivalry Week: Stevenson Battles Salisbury

As Villa Julie College changed its name to Stevenson University, this rivalry has been an epic clash of titans in Division III lacrosse.  As Stevenson Coach Paul Cantabene had always proclaimed, “we want what they have.”  Born was a rivalry that has been a treat for fans to watch ever since, even though both coaches downplay the game as a “rivalry.”


Both these teams offer excitement all over the field.  Their defenses are bruising and will play opponents all over the field.  In fact, the 2014 editions for both teams have goal against averages under seven, at 6.2 and 6.5.  Each goalie has been the backstop for their teams’ defense for over a season.  Salisbury senior goalie Alex Taylor has manned the net for three seasons as the starter.  He took over for Johnny Rodriguez and has been a stabilizing force for Salisbury ever since.  For Stevenson, Demetri Pecunas won the starting nod last year as a freshman and continues as the starter today.


Stevenson’s defense has grown up over the years literally.  Kyle Holechek and Callum Robinson are towering figures and have a punishing style of play.  The eldest statesman at the starting position is Holechek, who stands 6’3”, 230 lbs starting since his sophomore year and Robinson has started each game since coming to SU tilting the scales at 6’5”, 248 lbs.  Two imposing figures and one of the usual subs off the bench is Kyle McNamara at 6’4”, 215 lbs.  They employ the same strategy that Salisbury has always been known for in creating turnovers and pushing the ball up field in transition.


Salisbury still has big defensemen pushing people across the field.  Zeke Smith has been invaluable in transition adding nine points on four goals, five assists to date.  He stands at 6’4”, 210 lbs and fellow line mate Knute Kraus is equally as tall and weighs in at 210 lbs.  It is easy to see how offenses have been suffocated by these two defenses.  What little opportunities each defense gives means that the opposing offense has to be extremely efficient in scoring.


Salisbury has six midfielders all in double digit scoring.  The bulk of the scoring comes from the combination of Donovan Lange, Thomas Cirillo, and Sean Fitzgerald.  Cirillo and Fitzgerald are tied with twenty-nines points on the season, while Lange leads with thirty-three.  Greg Korvin and Brandon Kendricks are all into the twenties with their scoring as well.  There is no lack of depth in scoring coming from either of these midfields.


Stevenson has welcomed Tony Rossi back with open arms.  He leads the midfield with thirty points on nineteen goals, eleven assists.  Twice he has registered four goals in a game this season.  There are goal scores surrounding him in Billy Burgoyne, Joe Balestrieri, and Colin Dabney who all have more than seventeen points on the year.  Burgoyne has logged a lot of miles for Stevenson during his time there, Balestrieri opened the season with four goals in overtime win against York College, and Dabney had a career day against Tufts with five goals.


Facing off is going to be a battle in getting each team more possessions.  Stevenson has relied on a combination of Justin Buonomo and Brent Hiken.  Hiken takes a majority of the draws, winning nearly seventy percent, but the team doesn’t lose strength when Buonomo is out there as he wins at a clip of sixty-three percent.  Salisbury has a wealth of depth at the face off position, which includes one Stevenson transfer.  Mike Schiavonne played his freshman year at Stevenson, now winning fifty-four percent of his draws as a Seagull now.  Preston Dabbs and Chris Biank have taken the most face off attempts, with Biank winning the majority at a rate of fifty-eight percent.


Attack has always been a strong position for both teams.  For Stevenson, Stephen Banick and Glen Tompkins share the lead in goals scored with twenty-four.  Both are first and second in scoring for the Mustangs respectively.  Senior Chris Dashiell leads the team with nineteen assists and is fourth in scoring.  Salisbury is led by a senior laden attack duo of Rhett Depol and Luke Phipps.  Depol has evenly distributed his scoring and leads the team with forty-three points, while Phipps is second on the team in goals with twenty-four.  Both offenses are at the tops of Division III Lacrosse averaging 14.1 goals per game for Salisbury and 14.2 goals per game for Stevenson.


Since 2008, these teams have met fourteen times.  I have coached in this rivalry and even the coaches are exhausted at the end of these games.  Both teams give more than they thought that they could if they were walking onto the field for any other game.  Add the air of tension and the adrenaline pumping through the participants, the game has everything a spectator could want.  There are trick shots, transition opportunities, end-to-end battles, big hits, great saves, and more.  The schools sit 90 miles away from each other and the players regularly see each other during summer league competition.  There have been some great battles on the field for national supremacy.  Michael Simon guarding Kylor Berkman was an amazing battle for two years.  Jimmy Dailey breaking down defenses on his way to the goal while on ESPN3 and National Defenseman of the Year Evan Douglass versus National Midfielder of the Year in Sam Bradman.  Brett Yoder playing against his old team and in defeating gave Salisbury a record of 105 wins and 1 loss.  Mike Winter’s fourth goal to propel Salisbury to the Championship Game over Stevenson.  That same game there was a weather delay that led what looked like a comfortable lead to an epic overtime thriller.


Since the rivalry was born in 2007, these teams have combined for every National Championship except for two.  Salisbury has won four (’07, ’08, ’11, ’12) and Stevenson won the schools first in 2013.  This Saturday the teams will collide at Mustang Stadium, home of the Stevenson Mustangs in what should be in fact a Battle of Titans.  Maybe the most interesting fact about the game is that the regular season winner has not always meant the winner again in the playoffs.  In the last five years, only once have these teams not seen each other in the NCAA Playoffs (2011).  The record is even at 2-2.


Saturday night at 7pm the Stevenson Mustangs host the Salisbury Seagulls in what should be one of the best games of the year in lacrosse.