Coming from a man whose teams have reached the Division III championship game 13 times during his 23-year coaching career – including eight of the last nine with this Sunday’s game against Tufts (7 p.m. ET, NCAA.com video stream) – Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman’s advice to his team may sound a little bit odd.
“I tell our guys every year,” Berkman said, “You never know when you’re going to get this opportunity again. You may never get an opportunity, as a coach you may never get back there, as a player you may never get back there. You don’t care who you’re playing, you just want to make sure that when you walk out of the stadium at that night that you’ve given your best effort and you’ve played well because opportunity’s knocking. You’ve got to answer the door because you never know when it’s going to be there again.”
The Sea Gulls have the opportunity on Sunday to do something that they failed to do last Memorial Day weekend: beat Tufts to bring home the ninth NCAA championship in program history. However, while some of Berkman’s players may be salivating at the opportunity to avenge last year’s 9-6 loss to the Jumbos, the coach has made clear that the opportunity for this year’s title is more important.
“To me it didn’t matter who we played,” Berkman said. “It didn’t matter who we played in semifinals. We’re going to prepare to the best of our ability. We’re playing Tufts now so obviously we’re somewhat familiar from last year what they do and who they are and we’re just excited to be in the championship game.”
To say it doesn’t matter whom Salisbury played may sound dismissive, but the Sea Gulls have run roughshod over their opposition since a two-goal win over Stevenson in the Capital Athletic Conference championship game. Salisbury closed out the regular season with a 17-3 win over Washington, then won NCAA tournament games against Endicott, Dickinson and Roanoke by scores of 12-8, 12-4 and 16-7, respectively. Since the tournament began, Salisbury has not trailed in a game at any point, and overall, the team ranks second in Division III in average scoring margin.
By contrast, Tufts has been pushed to the limit in the postseason, playing four straight one-goal games before a 16-12 win at RIT in the NCAA semifinals, including a 13-12 overtime victory over Middlebury to win the NESCAC championship. Preparing to face a Salisbury team that is clicking on all cylinders, Jumbos head coach Mike Daly is certainly glad to have a battle-tested team.
“I think we’re at 13-1 over the last two years in one-goal games,” Daly said, “I think it’s just a reflection of our guys and they’re so tough and they work so hard and it makes it that much more on them not to give in, in those challenging moments and really a reflection of our work with the special forces – the force recon marines that we’ve worked with the past two years, and it’s just a culmination of all of those things coming together into a great group of guys who work hard. They believe in each other, they believe in their coaches, and it makes my job – while it’s not too fun in those one-goal games – certainly makes my job easy with the type of character we have in our program.”
Still, Daly knows his job won’t be easy, going up against a team that ranks second in Division III in scoring defense and sixth in scoring offense.
“We have so much respect for the Salisbury program and Coach Berkman,” Daly said. “We got it done last year; they’ve been doing it for 25 years. I mean they’re the team. They’re what everybody in Division III hopes to be and just the respect we have for Coach Berkman and his staff, and all those players, it’s a great challenge for us. A great opportunity, and we’ll give them heck, we know that.”
The Jumbos blueprint for giving the Sea Gulls heck will likely start with the attack duo of Sean Kirwan and D.J. Hessler. Hessler was the only player from Division III among the 25 nominees for the Tewaaraton Award, while Kirwan is among the top 10 nationally in goals per game, averaging 3.25 tallies per contest.
“Sean is as good a player as we’ve ever recruited here,” Daly said, “and just a testament to our program. He started every game this year and he has just done a remarkable job with his role. His role is to score goals and we let the other guys get him the ball and our team does a great job doing that.”
Salisbury may not have a singular offensive talent quite like Hessler or Kirwan, but juniors Matt Cannone and Sam Bradman lead an extremely potent Sea Gull attack, with both earning All-America honors from the USILA.
“Matt’s a lot better this year than he was last year,” Berkman said. “He’s not just a shooter any more. He’s a kid that can feed the ball and leads our team in assist, he’s a kid that can finish inside better than he used to be. He’s improved tremendously over the last year and he wants to put closure on this last game so that he can put his mark on Sea Gull Lacrosse.”
Both teams have gone through changes over the past year, but both have arrived back at the same venue, with the same stakes. Only time will tell if the result is also the same.