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NCAA D3 Final Four Preview & Predictions

The road to the D3 Final Four is absolutely grueling. Sure, D3 teams get a full week to prep for their championship game, but the path before that time, just to get there, is fraught with peril. And bears. Games are spread only days apart and every team that moves on faces a lot of top quality opponents. And lions. But now, our semifinal match ups in the North and South are set, as RIT hosts Wesleyan, and Salisbury travels to Gettysburg. Both games will be played Sunday and both bird mascots are on the road.

Each of these D3 Final Four games deserves an in-depth preview, and that’s just what they’ll get. Since I went 4-4 on my Wednesday D3 game predictions, and I even got most of the scores close, I feel pretty darn qualified. And some of my best friends played D3.

North D3 Final Four – Wesleyan @ RIT

RIT Tigers

When you travel up to RIT, you need to show up ready to play, and when they win an early possession and you think they’re going to pull it out and settle down, get ready for a 14 yard low angle shot that somehow finds its way under the crossbar. I’ve seen it happen a million times. York, Stevens, a bunch of other teams this year, Wesleyan last year. It’s like fighting Mike Tyson (I’d imagine) – they come out and punch you in the mouth a ton of times for the first 10 minutes and then… they just keep doing it. ALL. GAME. LONG.

RIT is relentless, trigger happy, crafty, focused on ground balls and ball movement, and if you want to get into some extracurriculars with them, they’ll oblige up until a point, and then you’ll get most of the penalties. Again, this is not new, it’s just RIT ball, and it has to be respected. RIT is the number one team in the nation for good reason. 21-0 with a really good schedule and plenty of impressive wins kind of speaks for itself. It truly does.

That being said, I want to talk about them some more! Also, York did a great job of taking this initial onslaught (which lasted for the entire first half) before they adjusted and started to control the pace of play a bit more, stayed vigilant on D at all times, and by sticking to their game plan, they got back into the game, at least to some extent. Most teams are lower scoring than RIT, so the key to beating them is never allowing them to run out to a big lead early in the game. High scoring is fine. Playing catch up is not. A good start (losing 5-3 is a good start for most teams – just want to set a baseline here) is paramount to success because RIT will not slow down, and playing catch up to a team that is constantly sprinting is always going to be tough. If you’re neck and neck, a sprint is just fine. Smart play in between the boxes can make a huge difference in dictating how the race is won, but shaking your fist while yelling “I’m gonna get you”, as you run 50 yards back will not work.

The keys to the Tigers’ offensive juggernaut were handed over to Kyle Killen fully this year, and his 97 points so far have backed that key handing up nicely. He’s slick, finishes on some unreal chances, is never afraid to shoot, and can get through even the best double teams. He pulled out of a couple this year that were just shocking. He must be turned into a passer, but that is not an easy task because like I said, he is slick, and loves stabbing the dagger that is a ridiculous goal right into the heart of any defense. You think the ball had been knocked out his stick, but it has not. It is in the back of the net. Your net. And it makes you sad. Killen feeds on your sadness.

Turning Killen into a passer also has its share of potential problems because Shawn Nally, Ryan Tandy, Quinn Commandant, Aidan Milburn, Ryan Barnable, and Cam Isaac are all consistent and serious shortie threats, as is Eli Salama with his longstick, and playing five on five against that group is also daunting. A further level of scary is that the scoring depth goes beyond well just that. 15 players have at least 10 points, 9 have at least 30, and around 25 guys have 5 points or more this year. Anyone will shoot a good shot (or an ok one) if they’re feeling it. And these guys are usually feeling it. It’s exciting to watch, almost frenetic in pace, and can only be countered with structure and talent. A lot of these players dominant hand guys, but they go hard, turn back quickly, and will throw a behind the back or shovel if it’s needed. Sometimes even if it’s not. And it works. They’re exciting and predictably unpredictable. They create and manage chaos well, and the end result is goals.

Defensively, I need to talk about Walker Hare. He’s a goalie with good outlet passing, and starts the break nicely, but some of the saves he makes are next level. He’s consistent, patient, confident, and athletic, bailing out his defense, and allowing them to be aggressive when others might not be. Alex Maruna, Joey Menecola, and Trevor Smyth are a capable group of poles down low, with good sticks, a nose for loose balls, and the ability to play physically. They limit their penalties, but also limit opponents to low percentage shots, and they play smart lacrosse. While they do have good sticks, and make good decisions, it’s better to have the ball in their sticks during the RIT clear than in the RIT shorties’ hands, because other than Salama, that’s where the real danger lies.

When it comes to face offs, Nate Farrell can be deadly when he gets rolling. He’s not fancy, or all that big, but he is tough, very athletic, and has excellent form, focusing on the ground ball and possession above all else. He has a clean exit, and great options on the wings when he needs them. Should he struggle, Jimmy Spillane is also quite capable, and face off dominance certainly plays into RIT’s impressive ability to go on run, early or otherwise.

RIT is… impressive. There is no way around it, this is a very good team with scorers, talent, and heart all over the place. They play together, they play hard, they play like family. I’m a Wesleyan alum so I hate it all because we are playing them, but I also respect it to no end. The RIT Tigers have earned it, and they are very much seeing 2018 as the year they break through and take home the D3 title.

Wesleyan Cardinals

Since I finished up on draws for RIT, then went on to tell you I’m a biased WesTech alum, I will go through how Wesleyan can potentially dethrone RochTech as the current King of the North. I guess that was a Game of Thrones reference. Sorry. Also does RIT call itself RochTech? Because we do call ourselves WesTech – it’s ironic. I think. I was never really sure. Anyway…

Zach Zavalik is a very good face off guy, and he can do some things after the draw that add to his value, but the edge likely goes to Farrell here as a pure draw guy. Something to watch is what Zavalik does with the draws he wins, and when he wins them. He has a knack for winning a draw when it’s needed most. Ryan Lynch provides another solid option, but one of these guys simply has to have a day for Wesleyan to earn those much needed extra possessions. Wing play will be important as well, and watching guys like Colin Hitter and Chad Malinowski battle with Salama and RIT’s short sticks should be fun for fans. Could both teams double poll the draws at times? I wouldn’t rule it out.

Wesleyan’s offense will also need to shine, and I’m very curious to see whether they come out firing, or come out with a more patient approach, and if they then vary between the two or apply one more often. They have played both styles this year at different times. I am a big fan of the “vulture mentality” where you take anything you can, whether it’s in transition, settled, or any chaotic situation like subbing or the end of quarters. This offensive group has the potential to match up well on the RIT defense if they move the ball and move their feet, then dodge to create, but when in possessions and where on the field they will do this is anyone’s guess.

Here is the most recent Wesleyan video. It’s older, but it gives you some idea.

Harry Stanton gets top billing for Wesleyan, and he took a ton of shots against Tufts in the quarters. 12 or more I think. While only one hit the back of the cage, he delivered in a lot of other ways by drawing attention and riding incredibly well. Stanton is a lot more than a scorer, but my feeling is that he will need to be a big-time scorer against RIT, and he is not alone. Christian Barker and Taylor Ghesquiere are very different players, but both can have big days and the Cardinals will need midfield production. Lefty attackman Ronan Jacoby has been playing really well all year and scoring big time goals, but this whole show really starts with Carter Hawthorne behind the goal. Hawthorne can certainly score with the best of them, and if you start to play him like a passer, he will, but the problem is that he is a passer, and yet teams have to play him straight up. This leads to doubles, ball movement, and goals.

On the other end of the field, you’ve got the famous Wesleyan zone defense, which relies on teamwork, communication, stopping ball, and a whole lot of running and movement. And good players. You do need good players! I like how it matches up with RIT on paper, but this is where things get really fun because I liked how it matched up last year but RIT shot the lights out early, and Wesleyan could never recover. Honestly, it happens. It could happen again this year, but my guess is the staff has some tweaks and learned some lessons – now we get to see it play out.

Defensively, Andres Rodriguez has been putting on a show with a longstick, and even with my bias I think he is a legitimate candidate for player of the year. He plays right up to the line, and when he manages not to cross it, and stay on the legal side of play, he is absolutely electric. He takes the ball away, picks it up, lays big hits, makes hustle plays, and is the spark for the Wesleyan D. Christian Barker, Eric Meyreles, and Sean Penney are excellent short stick D mids, and Ben Shively, Jake Cresta, Colin Malarchuk, Thomas Clejan, Malinowski, and Mitchell Patton are a big, smart, athletic, and fast group of poles, all of whom see action. In goal, Otto Bohan provides relief when the zone breaks down, and while he has been just a little streaky at times this year, when big games are on the line, he has a knack for making some ridiculous saves. A full 60 minutes of that kind of play, or even just during the predicted RIT onslaught could be a game changer.

If I’m a bookie, or I’m unbiased, or I’m making “predictions” then I’m picking RIT. The smart money is on the RIT Tigers. BUT, I don’t even have regular money, let alone smart money, so I’m going with the Wesleyan Cardinals, because when momma hears her baby bird crying she comes a-running and a-squawking and a-running. That’s just science. Just as I am pro-Wesleyan, I know Ryan Conwell is cheering for RIT, his alma mater, so the LAS bias is even overall. I just wrote the D3 post. See? That’s honesty in journalism.

Ok, now on to the SOUTH!

South D3 Final Four – Salisbury @ Gettysburg

Both of these teams are capable of winning higher scoring games, but I don’t think that will happen here, as Gettysburg attacks the game with a more controlled pace in general, and Salisbury simply has moments where their offense can sputter a little, and deviate from its deadly highest gear. You aren’t passing anyone stuck in first. Carburetor. See? I know engines. In my book, the only way this game turns into a shootout is if Salisbury does come out firing on all cylinders, hits the back of the net often, and Gettysburg then answers quickly. Once the pace of this game is set, I expect both teams to follow through with it and see it through to the end!

This is going to be a classic battle, and it’s a can’t miss game.

Gettysburg Bullets

The Bullets get assists on about half of the goals they score, and they give up more assisted goals than non-assisted. Their offense and their defense makes you work. They shoot pretty efficiently, and while they don’t take a ton of shots per game (around 40) they take enough to make it count, and they are typically pretty good shots. It’s a smart team on both ends of the field. Throw in just a little flash and you have the Bullets Neither their man up or their man down stands out, and both groups average in the mid 30s when it comes to efficiency. While their numbers are not jaw dropping, Gettysburg does make teams work for stops or goals on MU/MD.

The Bullets are good on ground balls, and while their numbers aren’t gaudy, some of this is informed by their controlled style of play, and longer offensive possessions. Face offs are a strength, but for Gettysburg, they are best served when the face off battles becomes a 50/50 ground ball, and their team athleticism and hustle can shine. Gettysburg has a solid ride, but they do not generate a ton of turnovers, and seem more content to play settled six on six than press up field too much. This does not always hold true, but the Bullets six on six D is so solid, the drop back approach makes a lot of sense. Against OWU, the D only allowed 2 goals for the first 47 minutes of the game, and even when the Bishops scored 3 in the last 13, Gettysburg did not panic. Their D was ready to go, and they held on firmly to win, 8-5.

Here is an older Gburg vid, so you can see what I’m talking about here:

On offense, Gettysburg has a good goal scorer in Andrew Garstka, and then they have five other talented guys who can score AND notch a bunch of assists. Brian Kolen leads the attacking group, and he’s an even better scorer than Garstka. The kid can ball. Jack Fletcher, Jack Harvey, Tommy Heller, and Michael McCormick each have at least 20 goals and 15 assists, and are a big reason the Bullets’ top six is so dangerous – they are diverse. You have lots of good, athletic players, who can see success in multiple facets of the game.

While Gettysburg has a couple defensive guys who can score the ball, their real strength is defense, which makes sense. It’s so basic! These scoop up a lot of GBs, play great D, and earn their team extra possessions. They play smart, and they play tough, physical lacrosse. Mitch Wykoff, Christian Atalese, Eric Carr, and Cullen Minion lead a great defensive group on the field, and when Tim Brady is seeing the ball well in between the pipes, he provides a great bail option and makes the saves he should, and some he shouldn’t. His numbers aren’t gaudy, but teams know they have to work for a great shot on Brady, and he still makes them work for every goal they score. When he’s good, he’s very, very good.

Salisbury Sea Gulls

Salisbury is a little less predictable than Gettysburg, and this has a huge upside, as well as a sizable downside. The upside is that when SU plays SU lacrosse, they look really good. When they don’t… well, you get the idea. I’m sure Jim Berkman will have his crew primed and ready to go for this one, as the Gulls fly the best in big games, but a tight game with a good Dickinson team and a near upset at the hands of a young but talented CNU team speak to some weaknesses that a lot of other SU Final Four teams did not seem to have. Seeing as this Salisbury team had so much to replace from last year, it shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but if SU regains its legendary swagger anytime soon, and plays 60 minute lacrosse games, they are as good as any team I’ve seen in a while. And that’s saying something.

So for me, it’s less an issue of past 2018 performances with this Gulls squad. I don’t think their season numbers, prior results, or anything else that has already happened will have a big impact on this game. It’s simply a question of whether SU shows up and plays a full 60 minutes of SU lacrosse. If they do, then I’ll say it right now – watch out.

Also an older video, but you get the point – SU can be very good:

Salisbury has ten guys with at least 15 points, and they have seven guys with 35 points or more. Corey Gwinn out of the midfield is always dangerous and forces defenses to adjust their schemes and timing. It pays dividends for everyone around him. All three attackmen – Pierre Armstrong, Josh Melton, and Griffin Moroney – each have 50 points or more and are very capable on their own, but play even better together. SU may not have serious longstick scoring, but they do have 13 midfielders who have scored goals. This is a group that can explode for points from lots of different places. Again, this is upside and downside all in one, depending on how it works out, and adds to the unpredictability of this SU team. While face offs aren’t truly an added area of consistent strength, the team does really well in the ground ball battle, which can add in those valuable extra possessions.

This ground ball obsessions starts in the back end, and defenders like Will Nowesnick, Corey Berry, and Kevin Murphy play stout defense, but also pick a ton of eggs up off the carpet. They move the ball, kick start transition, and make up the beginnings of a very serious defensive unit. Again, when this group is all on the same page, they are superb. When they are disjointed, you can get the CNU game. I like Brandon Warren in goal, and he usually plays well, but in the event that he doesn’t, Coach Berkman seems to have confidence in Anthony Stavrakis as well. Never bad to have a back up option!

Overall, Salisbury looks really dangerous, and has all season long. As with the season, a lot of it depends on who shows up – focused, ready for battle Salisbury? Or hey CNU is up big on us Salisbury? My gut say the former Salisbury shows up, and that they take this win in a close game.

NCAA D3 Final Four – Final Thoughts

So here we go! It’s game time on Sunday, the match ups are in, and we’re ready for the D3 Final Four. May is truly glorious. Also, the D3 Final Four teams all do a great job with their mascots. Tigers are a little basic, but RIT’s gear game is so strong and their colors are accurate to nature, so we’ll let it pass. Cardinals is also boring, but the color scheme is 100% accurate, and the team used to be the Fighting Methodists and they wore lavender. It was a positive step. The Bullets are a mascot only Gettysburg could use, and we appreciate their nod to history. As for the Sea Gulls… I like it. I’ve always liked it. And I liked it even more when you had the Sea Gull in a big “S” sweater. That was the coolest.

Half of you are making it to Foxboro, and half of you ain’t. Best of luck to all.