By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
Featured photo: The SU defense forces possession out of a Dickinson attackman. May 16. Emma Reider photo
Back on Feb. 24, the top-ranked Salisbury University men’s lacrosse team entered Gettysburg, Pa. to face the No. 13 Gettysburg College Bullets. That one game changed much for both teams in the 2018 campaign.
In a tight 11-10 finish in double-overtime, it was the Bullets who emerged victorious with a high-profile win on their resume. Fast forward, three months later and the two programs are the final two teams standing on one side of the 2018 NCAA Division III Tournament bracket.
While Gettysburg continued to accelerate through their season, SU Head Coach Jim Berkman says that the first half of the season was key in developing an identity for his squad.
“I think we know who we are,” Berkman said. “We graduated almost 250 goals and we had three sophomore attackmen who hadn’t played a lick at attack. We were four weeks into the season.”
“We were trying to figure out the midfield lines. We really didn’t know who we were at that point. There were some guys that played a lot tonight that didn’t play a lot then.”
Since starting the season 6-3 with three road losses, Salisbury is now on a 13-game win streak which includes a CAC Championship and wins over Cabrini, CNU (three times), York, and now Dickinson.
Those adjustments on offense have included increases in depth overall. SU sophomore attackmen Griffin Moroney and Pierre Armstrong have tallied a combined 15 points in the NCAA Tournament, while fellow attackman Josh Melton is back to his 2017 production with 12 points in the last three games.
The win over Dickinson came on Wednesday night in a tight defensive battle. SU emerged with the 9-7 home victory with disciplined possession and stringent defense.
“I thought that we played a pretty clean game,” Berkman said. “We were 18-for-18 on the clears. We only had 10 turnovers versus their 19 which I think was a big part of the game. I thought [Tucker and Nowesnick] did some great jobs of shutting down kids that have been scoring several goals for them.”
The SU offense started the game off the right way with a 5-1 lead at halftime. Dickinson did not see their first goal of the contest until the 1:53 mark of the second quarter. Nine different Sea Gulls registered a point for the Salisbury offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, SU’s veteran defense settled in once again, allowing only seven goals on 30 shots. Sophomore goalkeeper Brandon Warren added 10 saves onto the winning effort.
“The one thing that I kept telling myself is that I have the easiest job in the world on the field because I have all of these guys to my left and my right so I don’t have a worry out there, but it was also a calm, composed, it just flowed, the feeling,” SU senior defenseman Will Nowesnick said.
The SU defense was tested by Dickinson out of the halftime break when the Red Devils scored three times in the first five minutes of the third quarter. However, the Sea Gulls stayed calm and settled in.
“They got off to a hot start in the second half and I just feel like a couple balls bounced their way,” SU senior defenseman Kyle Tucker said. “A couple mistakes by us that just led to their three-goal jump. Then, we just recomposed ourselves and played the scout.”
While Dickinson did tally three more scores in the final six minutes of the game, Salisbury held on for the win and a berth into the NCAA Semifinals. SU remains alongside their next opponent Gettysburg, R.I.T. and Wesleyan (Conn.).
Berkman says that the home-field atmosphere is also a big part of their success in the playoffs, a benefit the Sea Gulls received after facing one of the tougher schedules in all of NCAA Division III men’s lacrosse. Salisbury currently owns a 33-game home winning streak from the 2016 NCAA Tournament until now.
But another factor on and off the field is the experience that the current upperclassmen possess.
“That’s a lot of experience,” Berkman said. “It’s almost a whole nother season of playing in this environment. There’s definitely an advantage to being here before in how you handle those emotions.”
The head coach noted during the post-game press conference that Wednesday’s NCAA Quarterfinal victory was the 16th NCAA playoff game for the current SU senior class. That senior class has accomplished back-to-back national championships over the last two seasons, aiming to be the first team since the 2003-05 Sea Gulls to claim three straight Division III titles.
That veteran experience is something that all of the seniors utilize, especially the five key defensive players that make up a portion of SU’s defensive unit. Recently multiple younger players have stepped up for the Sea Gull defense.
The CAC Player of the Year has also been impressed with the play of the young Gulls.
“Noah Kness is a freshman coming in,” Tucker said. It’s really his first time touching the field. He’s done a tremendous job for us, same with Brad Apgar. Noah Kness, I look over and every time he’s on the field he’s almost causing a turnover and getting a ground ball.”
“That’s more than what we could ask for as a freshman to step in this late in the season and do more than he’s expected of.”
Last season the Sea Gulls saw a similar situation with occasional injuries, allowing now starters Murphy and defenseman Drew Borkowicz to gain valuable playoff experience. This year the freshmen long-poles Brad Apgar and Noah Kness have been given the opportunity, combining for 21 ground balls and 12 caused turnovers.
On Sunday, this high-flying Sea Gull defense will hit the road for only the eighth time this season to take on Gettysburg in the NCAA Semifinals. First face-off is slated for 4 p.m.
“We know what we have to do with the people that we have on offense to hopefully get 10 goals,” Berkman said. “If we get 10 goals with this defense, then we’re usually in pretty good shape.”
Back in their February match-up, the Sea Gulls had 19 turnovers, only five caused turnovers and lost the face-off battle by three. In all of these categories, Salisbury has improved as the season has gone on. In their winning streak, SU is averaging just 13 turnovers-per-game, 10.7 caused turnovers-per-game and a 62.5 win percentage on face-offs.
SU’s greatest advantage may be in the midfield this season. Other than increasingly excelling at the ‘X,’ the Sea Gulls are clearing at a 90.8 percent rate, second-best in the nation. On the defensive side, SU also rides opponents’ clears at 76.7 percent this season.
The Bullets (19-2) received an at-large bid into the tournament after falling to Dickinson in the Centennial Conference Tournament. Gettysburg defeated Elizabethtown, Rhodes and then Ohio Wesleyan on Wednesday here in the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s not gonna reinvent the wheel on Sunday,” Berkman said. “They got a system that’s allowed them to win 19 games. They play tremendous defense and it’s a team-oriented defense.”
Sunday offers brief reminders about how close Gettysburg and Salisbury are in the men’s lacrosse world. Berkman originally worked with Gettysburg Head Coach Hank Janczyk when Janczyk was the head coach of Salisbury in the mid-1980’s.
Now the two infamous head coaches rank first and second in all-time wins in all of NCAA men’s lacrosse with Berkman at a 530-60 overall record and Janczyk with a 453-141 mark. SU leads the overall series between the two programs 26-8 including a 14-6 win in the 2016 NCAA National Semifinals.
It is almost fitting for these two programs to battle it out for a 2018 NCAA Division III National Championship spot as Salisbury looks to make history again in their third-consecutive semifinal appearance and Gettysburg still yearns for their first national title.