By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: The SU defense shields the cage from the York (Pa.) offense in last season’s CAC Championship. April 29, 2017. Amy Wojtowicz photo
It has been the same story for the last few seasons. York College (Pa.) and Salisbury University continue to fight for dominance in the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) men’s lacrosse race. Splitting the last two conference titles, the two programs meet again Saturday for the third consecutive time in a conference championship game.
The latest chapter in their story is a bit different though. Unlike the previous two conference title meetings, this time the title goes through York. While SU has the 3-2 series lead across their last five meetings, 2018 is a separate story.
While program history brands the Sea Gulls as the favorite, it is actually the Spartans that control some unique factors this time around. There is a degree of pressure on both sides in this installment.
For seventh-ranked SU, it is to continue their reign as back-to-back national champions. For second-ranked York, it is a chance to finally cement themselves in the national title discussion.
The Spartans handled that pressure well early on in 2018 when the teams met in York on March 24. After a tight 3-3 game in the first half, York went on a 12-3 run in the second half, winning the CAC opener 15-6. From there, both teams marched through conference play, albeit with a tough CNU squad in the mix.
At the end though, it is the Spartans and the Sea Gulls once again. However, this is a different SU squad than the Spartans saw in March.
In York’s dominating win over SU, the Spartans had eight more ground balls, five less turnovers and made 20 more shots. York also benefited off eight SU penalties, going 5-for-8 on the man-up.
After starting the season 6-3, SU has now rattled off nine consecutive wins. A tough strength of schedule to start the season has groomed the flock into better offensive chemistry and stout defense, averaging 10.9 caused turnovers-per-game, 40.4 ground balls-per-game and allowing 5.8 goals-per-game.
To reach the CAC Championship, the Sea Gulls had to get past CNU for a second time this season, following a tight 6-5 win in Newport News, Va. Up 7-1 at the half, SU had everything in their control in Sea Gull Stadium, winning the game 14-3 at the end.
A potent CNU offense scoring more than 13.4 goals-per-game was limited to only 26 shots and three goals. The shots that got through the Sea Gull defense were stopped by Warren, making 10 saves in the playoff match-up.
“He did his job tonight because the shots that [CNU] got are the type of shots a good keeper saves,” SU Head Coach Jim Berkman said after the victory. “Nobody was shooting with their hands free. There was a lot of confusion, somebody over them all day. He played his angles well. He played an excellent game.”
In front of Warren, the SU senior defensemen duo of Kyle Tucker and Will Nowesnick continued their career efforts. Tucker led with 5 ground balls and 2 caused turnovers, while Nowesnick found an opportunity for a goal across the field on a 10-man CNU ride. Warren received a rare assist on the play as well.
“We’ve gained a lot of confidence,” SU sophomore goalkeeper Brandon Warren said. “Playing behind [Tucker] and [Nowesnick], they’re two of the best players in the country. They’re incredible. They just make it a lot easier, and they’ve been to two championships. They know what it takes.”
How's this for a defenseman's stat line @SportsCenter? Will Nowesnick in the @cacsports semifinal game: 1 Groundball, 1 Caused Turnover, and of yeah a 60-YARD GOAL! Let's also not forget the assist from goalie Brandon Warren #SCTop10 pic.twitter.com/BbRcj9ARiZ
— Salisbury Athletics (@suseagulls) May 2, 2018
SU only committed 11 turnovers too as an efficient offense excelled. On the offensive end, SU sophomore attackman Pierre Armstrong contributed five points. After a slow start to 2018 due to an early season illness, SU sophomore attackman Josh Melton led the effort with six points, coming from four goals and two assists.
“I’m starting to feel healthy again,” Melton said. “I think the biggest thing is just moving back down to attack and having set lines now. We’re building chemistry a lot. It’s helping a lot in the offense. We’ve really turned things up to the next level and clicked as we go into May and play those really good teams like York and Gettysburg.”
Having many senior weapons around him last season, Melton shined on the big stage totaling 12 points during the 2017 postseason including three goals in the national championship. The Centennial, Colo. native has also registered 16 points over his last four contests.
While SU proved themselves again as a top-contender vs. CNU, another installment of the weekly NCAA regional rankings came out on Wednesday. Those rankings bring even more to the table within the SU and York match-up on Saturday.
Foremost, Gettysburg College continues to hold the top spot in the South Region, readying themselves to face Dickinson College in the Centennial Conference Championship on Saturday.
York was again at the No. 2 spot in the rankings, while SU is just a spot behind at No. 3. The game on Saturday could be a battle for a conference title and also hosting rights through at least the NCAA Quarterfinals. If Gettysburg does slip up, then even a greater opportunity could emerge for both CAC teams.
Salisbury is benefited by a strong strength of schedule with their only three losses coming against NCAC runner-up Ohio Wesleyan, second-ranked York and third-ranked Gettysburg. The Sea Gulls receive a second opportunity against the Spartans on Saturday.
While the challenge is tall for the Sea Gulls, Berkman sees the central key for SU success is playing 60 minutes of lacrosse.
“They’re a good defensive team that kind of goes from man into zone and back into man,” Berkman said. “We didn’t do a good job of beating that last time. Our players have to study a lot of film between now and then to see where they’re vulnerable and take advantage of that. We have to play 60 minutes. We didn’t play 60 minutes last time.”
These 60 minutes coming up on Saturday in York are huge on many fronts, but next on the list for Salisbury is a potential 21st CAC championship under their head coach. The first face-off is set for 6 p.m. Saturday evening.