By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: Redshirt junior goalkeeper Anthony Stavrakis runs through the opening line-up during pre-game against Hampden-Sydney on Feb. 4. Emma Reider photo
Pressure. While Billy Joel and Queen sing its name in hits over the decades, the term and feeling takes on larger meaning in everyday life. Someone might need to hit a project deadline at work or need to ace an exam to get that coveted grade.
For Salisbury University men’s lacrosse, that pressure comes through expectations; expectations that have built up over the last few years and decades with the previous Sea Gulls and their successes.
Living and performing in the shadows of greatness is no easy task, but Salisbury embraces it each year. This season, the story is much the same with a new small flock of Sea Gulls rising to the top to lead Salisbury to a potential third-consecutive National Championship.
“We’re definitely trying to accomplish getting back and winning it. Getting back isn’t enough. We have a lot of new young guys. I want to just show them the ropes about what it takes to get back and win it all,” SU senior defender Kyle Tucker said.
The 2017 Defenseman of the Year, Tucker is entering his third season starting on a well-known SU defensive line. The Chester Springs, Pa. native started his season off fast against Hampden-Sydney, recording seven ground balls and three caused turnovers.
While Tucker has been in the spotlight before, 2018 offers something new for the senior Sea Gull.
“Their mission right now is that this is their team. Last year it was Nate [Blondino’s] team and Nick [Garbarino’s] team and it was [Brendan] Bromwell’s team. They were the leaders. Now they’re the leaders. It’s more than just playing now. It’s a lot about making others ready to play and making others better and accountable,” SU Head Coach Jim Berkman said.
Alongside Tucker is fellow veteran Will Nowesnick, who has started on the defensive line in his previous three collegiate seasons. The combo is something to behold for opposing offenses, but also offers veteran presences for the team to look to.
“They’ve been groomed by prior leaders. Two years ago, [Tom] Cirillo and [Preston] Dabbs were tremendous captains. They know what it takes and how those guys have pushed each other,” Berkman said.
Each season brings in new leadership for Salisbury with similar results. It is a sort of brotherhood at the top passing on the baton from one group to another.
After back-to-back National Championships for many of the seniors on the roster, the mission now becomes greater than winning a national title. It becomes more about winning it for the other Sea Gulls on the squad and leaving a legacy for later Salisbury players to follow.
“They then know how to do it for years to come and pass it along to the next generation,” Tucker said.
That lesson is within the hard-work ethic on and off the field for Berkman’s Gulls. The head coach notes that his players were preparing far before the team’s practices started. He noticed player organized activities from the leadership all through the winter semester.
Lots of playing time on the field is not the main measurement for leadership on the field with Salisbury. The off-the-field traits are just as important. Alongside the leadership of Tucker and Nowesnick are two other captains in seniors offensive middie John Wheeler and defender Nick Yancey.
The two have not started for Salisbury in their careers, but they have impressed with their team mentality.
Congrats to Sr. Defenseman Nick Yancey on being nominated as our 4th captain today after our scrimmage!! He’s had an exceptional work ethic and commitment to the Maroon & Gold over the last 4 years!! #ItsAGreatDayToBeAGull #GoGulls pic.twitter.com/Mz8z0HmNgA
— Salisbury Lacrosse (@SalisburyMLAX) January 31, 2018
That strong program bond led to intense work prior to 2018. With a deep non-conference slate as usual, Salisbury started preparation for 2018 quickly during fall ball.
“We treated the first day of fall ball as if it was the first day of spring because we knew we were going to be playing a real bonafide playoff team after only a week of practice. All of the depth chart was pretty much established,” Berkman said.
That early preparation seemed to pay off in their season-opener on Sunday when Salisbury took down defending-ODAC Champions Hampden-Sydney 16-7 despite a sluggish start. The teams were tied at four apiece at halftime.
However, the Sea Gulls were without two of their key on-field leaders in sophomore attacker Josh Melton and Nowesnick, both out with an illness. It took a team effort with new faces stepping up to fill the voids, especially in the first game of the season.
On the offensive end, the senior defensive leadership turns to an experienced sophomore in Melton. The Centennial, Colo. Native has embraced the Eastern Shore, scoring 24 goals as part of the offensive middies last season. This time around he will be calling the shots in place of the 2017 senior attacking line.
“I kind of assumed the role of what Nick [Garbarino] did last year as the vocal leader out there, leading everyone. It’s different. It’s tough leading the entire offense, but we have great guys like Corey [Gwin] and Garrett [Reynolds] coming back who have played in big games,” Melton said.
Berkman notes that he sees Melton more as a junior than a sophomore. No matter the class, the experience is the same. Without Melton, the team put up 16 goals which should be a good sign for when he’s back in the fray.
This SU offense will next be tested on Saturday when they host the No. 12 Lynchburg Hornets who fell at home to the Sea Gulls 9-8 in 2017. The Hornets ended the season in the NCAA Quarterfinals behind a defense that gave up 9.81 goals-per-game.
It is part of a slate in which Salisbury will see five USILA preseason ranked opponents including two in their next three games. However, a tough schedule is nothing new to this leadership as Berkman tests the squad well ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
“When the young attack gets to the end of the season and the midfield line and second midfield line figures it out, I think we’ll be a real tough out with that defense at the end of the year,” Berkman said.
The pressure is not coming. It is already here. With their leadership and the obstacles ahead, Salisbury will be ready for the new wave of it when May comes roaring in.