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DIII men's lacrosse championship preview 2021
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DIII Men’s Championship Preview

The DIII men’s lacrosse championship game is one of the most thrilling matchups every Memorial Day Weekend, and this year’s title game featuring RIT and Salisbury will be a contest for the ages. That’s not a prediction; it’s a guarantee!

Both teams get a week to prepare for this one, both come in battle tested, and both boast a ton of talent all over the field. The 2021 DIII men’s lacrosse national championship game comes after a cancelled 2020 season, a year of pandemic, and a wild ride all spring, but high expectations are now abound on both sides of the ball.

These two teams are peaking at the right time, and now we get to see who earns the crown. It’s disciplined, skilled, and hard-nosed Maryland structure ball versus Canadian-infused, Upstate magical movement, and if you know what’s good for you, you’re here for ALL OF IT! This might be the most exciting DIII men’s lacrosse championship matchup we’ve seen in years!

DIII Men’s Lacrosse Championship Preview

Meet the Programs

On one side, you have the RIT Tigers representing the North. This is a team with talent and depth at every position, slick stick skills galore, a bunch of future professionals, a nasty amoeba of a defense, and an ability to outscore just about anybody. They took down a high-flying Tufts team last weekend, 18-16, and are looking to keep that offensive deluge going on Sunday.

Head coach Jake Coon has had this program roaring for well over a decade, and for the past couple of seasons, they have been at or neat the top of the northern heap and downright dominant at times. When it comes to strong RIT teams (and there have been many), and the 2021 group matches up to, or exceeds, every team before it, and that is really saying something. The Roch-Vegas faithful are sure that this is the year they finally enter the hall of champions.

The Salisbury Sea Gulls stand in the other corner, and if you know anything at all about DIII men’s lacrosse, that should be enough, because for SU, every darn years is considered to be the year. Now, if you don’t know about the legendary program that is Salisbury, let me fill you in real quick – since 1994, Salisbury has won 12 DIII men’s lacrosse national championships, 22 league titles, and produced hundreds (yes, hundreds) of All-Americans. In fact, I’m pretty that every four-year player at SU since 1991 has won at least one national crown while at Salisbury.

This is DIII Titletown, and head coach Jim Berkman is the Mayor with a capital M. Skill, athleticism, toughness, and individual stars with a team-first attitude dominant these decades of SU excellence. The 2021 team has some of the past star power, and the overall level of talent may be as deep as it ever has been. And that makes SU a very scary opponent, as usual.

DIII Men’s Lacrosse Championship What to Watch For

RIT Offense vs Salisbury Defense

RIT’s biggest strength is its overall offensive production rate and how it’s able to make it happen. While the Tigers can roll out six top-level scorers and playmakers every single settled possession, transition offense is also quite common for the Tigers as their defensive group is equally dangerous on the O end and likes to push the rock.

Nick Montemorano quickly wins a lot of draws forward and can finish or dish with solid consistency, and this adds another dangerous wrinkle. Off the clear or ride, settled O or face offs, RIT can seemingly score at any moment. Dawson Tait, Larson Sundown, and Quinn Commandant are the three big guns on attack, and all three are lethal playmakers, and the ball moves quickly from stick to stick as the players move and exchange. Ryan Barnable and Spencer Bell provide even more playmaking from the midfield, and Marley Angus and Ryan Rosenblum stretch the D with their dodging and shooting prowess. Don’t be surprised is someone outside of those seven has a big day on Sunday as well, maybe even someone with a long stick. The depth of this high-level offensive talent is very real, which makes RIT constantly dangerous.

Salisbury’s defense has a tall task ahead of it, but this group is no joke. While it’s unlikely to completely shut down the RIT offense, its size, speed, communication, and teamwork allows one to think that SU could potentially limit the RIT offense to a “very bad day,” which would mean RIT scores 10 goals or fewer. There is no weak link in the SU defense as Brad Apgar, Jackson Woodward, Matt O’Callaghan, and Kevin Murphy lead this group of poles, and other than freshman John DeFazio, every other defender is either a senior or graduate student.

The Gulls’ defensive system presses, features great support, and when everyone keys on their responsibilities, it’s as good of a man-to-man D as exists anywhere. When all else fails, SU has TJ Ellis in goal. He understands the shots he will see and has been a consistent force. SU’s Brent Malamphy is less of a scoring threat off the draw than Montemorano, but he is he able to keep RIT away from scoring back-to-back quick goals and can give the Gulls a good number of settled additional possessions on offense, it will help the D out immensely. Defending RIT well on 20-25 possessions is a lot easier than defending RIT on 40-45 possessions. RIT wants the latter. SU will benefit greatly from the former.

Given all the experience both teams possess, look for RIT to bring its offensive A-game on Sunday and for the Salisbury D to answer the bell and put up a great fight. An exciting, talented, and deep offense against a powerhouse team-first defensive group? It’s definitely going to be fun! But I’m not sure it’s where the game will be won or lost.

The RIT offense is consistent, the SU defense is consistent – I don’t see any huge swings in either direction as being all that likely, and RIT will keenly remember 2017 when its offense sputtered in the final against Salisbury in a 15-7 loss.

Salisbury Offense vs RIT Defense

The Salisbury offensive players have put up absolutely gaudy numbers this year, with Cross Ferrara and Josh Melton already eclipsing 90 points each. Four more players have at least 40 points, with Jarrett Bromwell putting up a preposterous 79 points out of the midfield. When this group is flying together, the ball is zinging around, and the system is clicking, it can easily break 20 goals in a game and has reached 30 goals in two of its last four contests.

At the same time, this is not a group that is guaranteed to score in droves. It struggled against Lynchburg and Cabrini early on and never truly got going against CNU in early May. In all three of those games, opponents were able to force Salisbury into settling for lower quality shots and limited the Gulls’ ball movement. Salisbury’s three big guns are REALLY big guns, but if a D can focus on them and other players don’t answer the call, the Gulls offense can stagnate at times.

Like the SU offense, the RIT defense can also be a little up and down, giving up 13 goals or more three times this year. Part of that is a high risk, high reward approach where RIT presses and pressures out, uses some solid zone techniques, generates turnovers, and then very often scores goals. But that same pressure can be exposed. So far, it’s all worked out pretty well, but an aggressive style against highly-disciplined Salisbury could be a different story. SU uses its system to feed on chaos, so the RIT press must remain disciplined, at least for the most part, only taking big risks at the most opportune times. Poles Taylor Jensen, Patrick Shoemay, Alex Maruna, and Tyler Sceviour all feel free to take some risks walking they have Walker Hare in net, and the keep also provides a nice spark in transition.

If RIT can impose its defensive will on Salisbury and keep the Gulls below 10 goals, OR if Salisbury is able to use RIT’s pressure against the Tigers effectively and score quick passing goals, we could be looking at a huge swing in any predicted scoreline. So, while the RIT O versus the SU D may be the most heavily-discussed part of this matchup, the other end of the field might be where the game is won or lost.

Special Teams

Face Offs – Salisbury is a more possession-oriented face off team than RIT, but with Malamphy winning 76% of his draws and back up Eoghan Sweeney winning 67%, it has two good options to roll out against Montemorano’s forward push. While Montemorano only wins about 56% of his draws, his ability to go forward and to goal quickly can be a game changer. He did not convert any draws into goals against Tufts but did take three good shots, putting two on cage, which both required excellent saves. In this game, winning the right face off at the right time and scoring a goal could make all the difference.

Man Up/Man Down – Both teams put up a lot of goals on the extra man, and a team that scores on 50% or more of its chances if always worth noting (both teams do this as well). However, Salisbury is almost allergic to getting penalties in title games, at least historically, and the last time these two sides players for a title, RIT committed six infractions to SU’s one, and Salisbury walked away with it. It didn’t make or break the game, but it didn’t help RIT’s cause. SU is a disciplined team, and this is an area where it usually pays dividends. RIT cannot get into penalty trouble, but if it does, Salisbury has to convert.

Riding/Clearing – Both teams have seen pressure rides, high-pace clears, and transition on their road to this game, and both teams do what they do reasonably well. RIT clears proficiently but not perfectly. However, it makes up for this with the goals it scores off of clears. Again, there is some risk and some reward to the team’s approach. Its ride is solid and full of energy, but better teams were usually able to break it. Salisbury clears the ball a little more efficiently but don’t generate the same offensive production from its clear that RIT does. The Tigers will thrive in a chaotic clearing and riding game, but the Sea Gulls will do everything they can to impose order in the middle third of the field. It should make for some exciting plays via contrasting styles.

DIII Men’s Lacrosse Championship Potential X-Factors

The Salisbury Streak – While grad students like Kevin Murphy were part of the team that won a title in 2017, seniors like Cross Ferrara were not, and that would make the Class of 2021 the first class in decades to not a win a DIII men’s lacrosse championship while at SU. I can’t believe that’s even possible, and it speaks to the strength of what Jim Berkman has built, but it also adds a little extra motivation for this year’s seniors (even if they come back as grad students next year). Most of the contributors to this current SU team were around in 2018 when the Gulls lost in the title game, so they’ve been here before, and they know what it feels like to just come close.

The Larson Sundown Experience – Larson Sundown has played in a LOT of championship games. He’s won some, he’s lost some, but he knows his way around a title game experience. Very few of the current RIT players even touched the field in 2017 against Salisbury in RIT’s last showing in the DIII men’s lacrosse championship game, so this team doesn’t have a ton of experience in title games. But Sundown does. Can he help this RIT program to get over the runner-up hump?

Final Thoughts

While RIT has never won a DIII men’s lacrosse championship, it has come awfully close a couple of times, and in my humble opinion, this might be the best RIT team ever. This makes the Tigers a very slight favorite to win their first title. They are not the favorites by a large margin, but the overall expectation from so many in DIII lacrosse circles is that 2021 is the year RIT breaks through and takes home the hardware.

However, and this is a BIG however, if there is one DIII team in the country this year that can potentially impose its will on RIT, keep the scoring a little lower, and emerge with a hard-fought W, it’s Salisbury. The fact that SU expects to win it all each years helps with its approach, but because the Gulls haven’t won a title since 2017, this game golds additional significance for the program and the players, especially the seniors.

This is exciting stuff!

It will be nothing but A-game lacrosse on Sunday from both teams. There is pressure on RIT to break through and win it all, but the Tigers embrace it. There is pressure on Salisbury and its seniors to cement their dynastic legacy once again, and they embrace it. Only one of these teams will emerge victorious, while the other will suffer heartbreak. But for the rest of us, it’s simply a great game we get to enjoy, and it absolutely promises to deliver.