April 24, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum

Three Mays ago, Salisbury sauntered off the field at Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field, leaving Cortland State to celebrate an overtime win in the D-III national championship behind them. And as the players, the possessors of the three prior national titles, hit the sidelines, the direction came from coach Jim Berkman: Stop. Don’t look away.

Berkman told them to watch Cortland celebrate. To ingest and, in turn, digest the pain and let it metabolize into something else, some slow burning fuel to ignite later.

And as Salisbury now heads into its 21st straight NCAA Tournament after shredding then-top-ranked Stevenson, 13-5, in the Capital Athletic Conference championship on Sunday, it’s important to note just how close the Sea Gulls – the dominant team of the past decade in D-III men’s lacrosse, participants in the last six national championship games and winners of five of those – came to not even making an appearance in the 2009 Tournament.

And it’s important to note the role that pain – that old teacher from after the Cortland game in 2006 – played in sending a team that hit its deepest low in the past seven years to an automatic bid to the Tournament, a bid that may have been Salisbury’s only ticket in.

“The way this season’s gone, for us it was critical [to win on Sunday],” Berkman, the winningest coach in NCAA men’s lacrosse history, said. “If we would’ve lost Sunday, with four losses, and you look at the other teams across the country – with only five at-large bids, there are a lot of teams that are awful good with two losses.”

It was April 10, the end of a four-game stretch that saw, in chronological order, the termination of Salisbury’s 55-game win streak with a loss to Gettysburg on Mar. 28 (a streak that began directly after the loss to Cortland and one that spanned two national titles); the first-ever loss in 105 games in CAC play when the Gulls fell to Stevenson; and the first-ever back-to-back losses in conference when Salisbury fell to St. Mary’s (Md.) a week later.

And as St. Mary’s bounded around the field, winners after a last-second goal, Berkman told his team, again, to watch the victors dance. Facing the possibility of missing the Tournament for the first time since 1989, the Sea Gulls stared on.

“He told everybody to look at them, to look at how happy they are, take it in,” senior captain and defenseman Kevin Maynard said.

The loss to St. Mary’s was a low unlike any Maynard had experienced in his almost-four years at Salisbury. As part of the second-longest win streak in NCAA lacrosse history – the first belongs to Salisbury, too, at 69 games – the 55-game burst that started against Virginia Wesleyan on Feb. 17, 2007 and spanned two national championships, he’d lost just once since joining the program. In two weeks, he’d lost three times.

“I hate to lose and that’s why I picked to come here,” said Maynard, who grew up in Salisbury, Md. and played with Berkman’s son Kylor (the 2009 CAC Player of the Year) since the boys were five. “Everybody was down, trying to point fingers, and I think once we lost to St. Mary’s, a team that’s not very strong – they can barely throw and catch – when you lose to a team like that that, it’s shows we’re not playing well together.”

Sure, there was luck involved. To win 55 games in a row, luck has to be a little charitable – two of Salisbury’s national championships in the past six years have come in OT, and the bounces in close games seem to have always come up for the Sea Gulls. But for a two-week stretch on the murky, early-spring fields of the Mid-Atlantic, the luck gave out.

The Sea Gulls hit six pipes in the game against St. Mary’s, Berkman said. Against Stevenson, one shot – and this seemed to be happening a lot during the lull, Maynard said – rang off the crossbar and flew directly into Stevenson stick outside the zone, leading to a fast break and a goal.

“You’re pressing, and things start to happen,” Berkman said. “At St. Mary’s, every one of our major players in our top six hit a pipe in one game. You’re like ‘ohhhh my God.’ But that happens. Pipes happen, that’s the way of the world.“

It wasn’t that the Sea Gulls were getting out-played. They were dominating, at least statistically, Berkman said.

“It’s one thing to get beat and get out-shot 40-22,” he said. “It’s one thing to get beat when they won 20 faceoffs and you won four … but when you outshoot a team by 15-20 and out-ground ball by 10 win the face-off battle by 65-35 percent battle, there’s not reason to panic – we’re there, we’re good enough to win those games, and if we make those corrections, we can beat those teams.”

But the things that made them the benchmark of quality in D-III lacrosse since 2003 weren’t there. They were taking penalties. Stupid penalties, Berkman said – two penalties in the third quarter led to two man-up goals from Stevenson that broke a tie and sent the Mustangs on a run.

More, arguably the greatest compilation of talent in D-III lacrosse wasn’t opening up the field, settling instead for the first shot. This is a team that lost 12 players from last year’s team and picked up 23 newcomers, whether as recruits or transfers. With a six-man midfield rotation cycling through and doubts starting to creep in after the loss to Gettysburg, the team started to fracture into single units.

“I think it was being selfish almost – everyone just taking the shot,” Maynard said. “We did that a lot more last year and we had a team that could do it. And we have a new team this year. We need to play how we can play – moving the ball, waiting for the best shot inside.”

So they worked on the basics. No more firing from outside just because you can. No more highlight checks. Just do the job.

And they did.

“We just wanted to get back to the tournament,” Berkman said. “This isn’t one of the best Sea Gull teams ever, but this is a team that on any given day they can beat anybody.”

In the tournament opener on April 10, the Gulls trounced Mary Washington, 14-5. Then, on the road in the semis – the first-ever Salisbury road game in the CAC tourney – Salisbury got its revenge over St. Mary’s with an 18-5 trouncing. Then came Stevenson. And then went Stevenson, as the Sea Gulls kept the Mustangs scoreless until the third quarter, finally pulling off the 13-5 win.

“If anyone saw us play early in the season, they saw us play the last three games,” Maynard said.

And if this isn’t one of the best Salisbury teams ever, it could become one of the toughest, one of the tightest, bound by struggle and bound, more, by renewal.

“Lacrosse is fun again,” Maynard said. “For about three weeks I wasn’t enjoying it. When you’re losing everything sucks. Even hanging around is depressing. But now, lacrosse is fun again.”