Wesleyan beats national power to win first title

The Wesleyan University men's lacrosse team made history on Sunday afternoon as the Cardinals won the 2018 NCAA Division III men's lacrosse championship with an 8-6 victory over Salisbury at Gillette Stadium. Senior Harry Stanton, the program's all-time leader in goals, was named the Most Outstanding Player as he scored two more, as well as an assist on another.

The Wesleyan Cardinals played in their first national championship game ever while the Sea Gulls (20-4) were looking to capture their third-straight title and 13th overall, which would have tied Hobart's Division III record for most championships. Additionally, with the win, coach John Raba brings home the first-ever national team title in Wesleyan history. 

"It's an incredible moment for our program," said Raba. "Our senior group has worked so hard for years now, so it's not just, you know, today's day. This is the culmination of what we've been doing and guys believing that we had the team to get to a national championship and win it."

The Cardinals came out strong and jumped out to a 4-0 lead within the first 7:51 of play — with goals from four players — and they never looked back. Salisbury got within one, twice, and scored the first goal of the second half to trail 5-4 with 10:12 to play in the third quarter. However, Wesleyan rallied nicely with a 3-0 run and despite getting shut out in the fourth, the Cardinals' stifling defense made it difficult for Salisbury to find an open shot.  

"We made a few mental mistakes and great teams make you pay early in the game," said Salisbury coach Jim Berkman. "No, I never thought being down 4-0 was going to be a problem. We were down 5-1 at York before. I knew we just had to kind of grind it and take one possession at a time. But, again, we did a great job defensively after those first three minutes to grind it back and give us an opportunity and really hold a pretty high-powered offense very low for a long period of time."

Wesleyan's national champion men's lacrosse team Wesleyan athletics photo

The eight goals scored by the Cardinals ties the team's lowest output this season, for a squad ranked 46th in the nation in goals per game, averaging 12.90. It is just the third time all season Wesleyan has scored single-digit goals with the last time coming back on April 21 in an 8-7 win over Hamilton College.  

The Cardinals found the scoreboard in the game's opening 34 seconds for an early, 1-0 lead as Taylor Ghesquiere netted one of his two goals for the afternoon. Their offense continued to click as junior midfielder Christian Barker capped off a long offensive possession with his 28th goal of the season to push the advantage to 2-0 in favor of Wesleyan just over two minutes later.

The lead grew for Wesleyan when Harry Stanton popped in his 59th goal of the season to make it 3-0 Cardinals, just over four minutes into the contest. Carter Hawthorne pushed the lead to 4-0 at the 7:09 mark of the opening quarter marking the first time since March 4 against Ohio Wesleyan university, which the Sea Gulls have fallen behind 4-0 to start a game.  

Zach Pompea, who finished tied for the team-high in goals with two, broke the near 15-minute scoring drought getting Salisbury on the board with two seconds left to play in the opening frame. It marked the Sea Gulls' longest scoring drought of the NCAA tournament and longest in a game this season since the team's game at York College of Pennsylvania back on March 24, which lasted 14:45.

Corey Gwin continued the offensive run as he netted his two markers in the contest less than two minutes apart to cut the deficit to 4-3. Gwin first finished off a pass from Josh Melton before tallying his second goal off a feed from Pierre Armstrong. 

The Cardinals regained their offensive momentum after denying a Salisbury man-up opportunity, which the Sea Gulls were 0-for-3 on the afternoon, turning defense into offense. Stanton netted his second marker of the day to push the Cardinals' lead to 5-3 and breaking a 26-minute scoring drought by Wesleyan.

The teams headed to the break with Salisbury trailing Wesleyan 5-3. It marked the first time since 2010 that the maroon and gold trailed at halftime of a national championship. The Sea Gulls were behind by four, 7-3, to Tufts, in that contest.

Melton tallied his second point and first marker of the afternoon to pull the Sea Gulls back within one, 5-4, at the 10:12 mark of the third quarter. Melton finished off the second assist of the day from Armstrong less than five minutes into the second half.

However, Wesleyan quickly netted two goals in just over 60 seconds to push the lead to 7-4 with 7:41 left to play in the third quarter. Ghesquiere netted his second of the game before Corey Aviles tallied his second goal of the season to help build the advantage.

The lead only grew for the Cardinals in the third quarter as they built it up to four goals again, 8-4, at the 4:30 mark of the third frame. Hawthorne netted his second tally of the contest finishing off the Stanton offering to take the four-goal lead.

Salisbury entered the final frame trailing 8-4, its largest three-quarter deficit of the NCAA tournament this season and just fourth time all season the maroon and gold have trailed entering the fourth quarter.

Griffin Moroney pulled the Gulls back within three when he finished off a great pass from Pompea for his first marker of the day. Pompea threaded the ball through a sea of sticks to top side left, and without hesitation Moroney got off a great step down shot burying the ball into the far side of the cage.

Salisbury turned defense into offense with less than six minutes left to play as Brandon Warren, who finished his day with 11 saves, made a big stop right in front of the net sending the ball back out into the field of play. Will Nowesnick scooped up one of his three groundballs for the afternoon and found a streaking Jeremiah LaClair who made a pass to a cutting Pompea, who fired a shot right between Wesleyan goalie Otto Bohan's legs for his second marker of the day to bring the score final at 8-6.

The Sea Gulls were unable to break through the Wesleyan defense over the final five minutes taking nine shots in the waning minutes of the game but were unable to get anything past Bohan.

"I think the difference in the game for us, when you're playing a team that plays zone and the game's going to be a grind, is clearing and possession. We've been clearing it like 98 percent this season and we missed five clears today. That's very uncharacteristic of us. Five possessions in a game like this one are critical," Berkman said.

Salisbury took 28 shots compared to Wesleyan's 40 but did manage to scoop up 39 groundballs to the Cardinals' 23. However, the maroon and gold committed 15 turnovers including failing on five clears going 15-of-20 while Wesleyan successfully completed 16-of-18 clears and turned the ball over just 10 times.

"This is one of the best coaching years I've ever had in my life because every day I was working with three guys that were green," Berkman said. "I was trying to get those guys better and motivate them to do extra things outside of the 3:00 to 5:00 practice time. This is one of the most enjoyable years I've ever had at Salisbury. Great team, great teammates, hard work ethic, open to criticism at the right times and took it the right way. It was an exciting year to coach. All the one-goal games we won and how much they believed in each other, man, that's why you coach."