Division III lacrosse preview: Stevenson Mustangs

College SportsSportsNCAAMassachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association

Saturday’s entry is the seventh installment of a series taking a look at each of the eight Division III programs in this state according to their order of finish from last season. The Sun’s lacrosse preview was published Friday. This is Stevenson’s turn.

Overview: After falling in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament in 2011, the Mustangs bade farewell to nine All Americans and seven starters. But that didn’t prevent the team from going 18-5 and reaching the semifinals before losing, 7-2, to eventual national champion Salisbury. With six starters returning, Stevenson is considered a preseason favorite to advance to the national title game, which would be a first in school history. So the pressure is on.

Reason for optimism: The defense in 2011 allowed just 6.9 goals per contest, but got even stingier last season. Opponents averaged just 6.1 goals, which was the 10th best mark in Division III. The unit lost senior defenseman Kyle Fendlay, who is taking the year off to deal some personal matters, but does return senior defensemen Kyle Holechek (79 ground balls and 54 caused turnovers) and Parker Bratton (50, 31), junior long-stick midfielders Ryan Rubenstein (44, 16) and Warren Pumphrey (25, 24), and sophomore short-stick defensive midfielder Connor Curro (41, 5). Their presence is comforting for coach Paul Cantabene. “I’m hoping the strength is going to be the defense again,” he said. “… So we think we’ve got some really good depth. They’re adjusting to the way the game is played.”

Reason for pessimism: The defense’s play will be critical for freshman Dimitri Pecunes, who is slated to replace Ian Bolland as the starting goalkeeper. Cantabene said the Baltimore native and Calvert Hall graduate beat out junior Colin Rayburn and sophomore Kevin Cain for the right to open the season as the goalie. Listed at 5 feet, 11 inches and 175 pounds, Pecunes isn’t large, but he has the confidence of Cantabene, who said he has no qualms about throwing a freshman into the fray. “Dimitri played in the best high school league in the country in the MIAA,” Cantabene said. “So he’s used to playing in big games against really high-caliber talent. I think he’s going to be used to that, and I think he’s adjusted well to the college game. He can make big saves, he’s excellent at clears, and he’s done a really nice job. We live up to our motto here: the guy who plays the best, plays. So Dimitri has played the best for us through the preseason, and he’s going to be the guy who starts.”

Keep an eye on: Stevenson is still waiting to hear from the NCAA on midfielder Nick Rossi’s petition for another year of eligibility, and the graduation of Justin Lea (29 goals and four assists) further depletes the midfield. But sophomores Michael Crowe (13, 9) and Billy Burgoyne (13, 3) are poised to move up to the first line, and Cantabene said senior Peter Green, who is shifting from defense to offense, will likely join them. Cantabene said he thinks there are about a dozen midfielders who can contribute immediately. “We actually think that last year, we were a little weak in the midfield, and that hurt when Rossi got hurt in the middle of the year and Justin Lea got hurt,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of depth, and that’s when we weren’t scoring a lot of goals. We were struggling, but this year, we think we’ve got a lot of depth. So a couple injuries won’t hurt us as much.”

What he said: The Mustangs have had some talent-filled rosters – two-time National Attackman of the Year Steve Kazimer in 2009 and 2010 and National Player of the Year Jimmy Dailey and Outstanding Defensive Player Evan Douglass in 2011 come to mind. But Cantabene said this year’s squad may be the most skilled of his nine-year tenure at Stevenson. “From top to bottom, I think it’s the most talented team that we’ve had,” he said. “In the past, we’ve either had some great attackmen, a couple great middies, a couple good defensemen, and a good goalie. This year, we think we have seven or eight attackmen that are all really good and that could play for anybody. And we have 13 or 14 middies that are really good and could play for anybody. And we’ve got eight or nine defensemen that we all think are pretty good and two or three goalies. So this is as deep as we’ve been, and I think it’s helped practice more because we have the depth now and it’s helped guys play at a higher level because they know that there is somebody pushing them. If they don’t play well today, they’re going down [the depth chart]. If they play well, they’re going up. So the competition has really helped with the talent level that we have this year.”

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