Coming into today’s game, RIT’s offense averaged a mind boggling 17.48 goals per game.
Today, they got just seven, thanks to one of Salisbury’s strengths, defense.
The Sea Gulls used a 6-2 third quarter to vault past the Tigers, 15-7, for their second straight Division III National Championship, and their 12th in program history. All 12 have come under head coach Jim Berkman.
The first half was an unusual slow start for both teams, highlighted by a 2-1 first quarter, which was the lowest-scoring quarter so far during all of Championship Weekend. But Salisbury picked up the production in the third quarter, with the glowing stat being an 18-5 advantage in ground balls.
“That’s a tribute to our defensemen,” Berkman said. “[Kyle] Tucker and Will [Nowesnick] and Aaron [Leeds] are just tremendous, have tremendous sticks, and they’re all pretty fast, and you can throw Andrew Ternahan in there too. And I thought Jeremiah LaClair had a lot of really nice ground balls today in traffic.”
“I thought our third period was terrible,” said RIT head coach Jake Coon. “Probably the difference in the game. The penalties were one part, but the glaring stat that I'm looking at is the 18 to 5 ground balls in the third period. That's the game right there. You can't give a patient offense like that 18 ground balls in one quarter. They're going to make you pay. They did, they scored six, we scored two. It really put us in the hole, and certainly playing man down for part of the period was pretty detrimental.
“Their wingmen, their post defensemen, even their short sticks, they all came up with key ground balls throughout the whole game, but particularly in that third period. Mainly it was about possessions, and they had a lot of them.”
Nowesnick, who missed last week’s 12-11 win over Denison, recorded two caused turnovers, along with Leeds, while LSM Cory Berry caused three turnovers of his own. Nowesnick scooped up five ground balls in the process, and so did Tucker.
“I think the biggest key today is how calm the defense was,” Nowesnick said. “It’s the biggest game of the season, but how calm it was, no one was yelling at each other. The whole atmosphere allowed me to focus in on what I had to do, and I was able to hear what the coaches were saying on the sideline.”
The defense helped senior goaltender Colin Reymann make 12 saves in the win. Reymann complemented his defensive unit as one of the best in the nation, and mentioned how well his unit played the pick-and-splits effectively.
RIT’s high-scoring attackmen of Ryan Lee and Chad Levick both scored only one goal, while midfielder Braden Wallace had a team-high four goals.
Coach Berkman believes that his defensive unit this year ranks up there in the history of the storied program.
“I think as a collective group, when you look at the three guys, this might be the best,” Berkman mentioned. “To me, Aaron Leeds is the best third defenseman I’ve ever coached. He made a couple big plays in the fourth quarter again today with stealing the ball on a great play in the clear. And then you’ve got a first-team All-American at long pole [Berry] and he had a pretty good game today.”
The 29-year veteran head coach of the Gulls mentioned that Berry was functioning at about 25% and will get his hip operated in the offseason. He thinks he’ll be even better come next season.
Offensively, the team had their usual suspects step up. Nathan Blondino had a goal and two assists, while Carson Kalama scored four goals with an assist, good enough for Most Outstanding Player honors.
But it was the second midfield that really stepped up their play. Garrett Reynolds had a hat-trick, Josh Melton did as well, and Kevin McDermott had a goal and three assists for a career-high four points. Berkman mentioned the unit stepping up along with the leadership of the senior class as a big reason for the team’s overall development this season.
RIT’s defense didn’t have many answers to a Sea Gull offense that has had experience participating in Championship Sunday.
“We're very good typically off ball,” Coon said, “and today they weren't giving us much off ball. Out of our seven goals, only three assists, and certainly seven goals is not nearly our normal output.”
And similar to what Merrimack experienced in their title game loss to Limestone earlier in the day, the Tigers fell apart late in the game. The jitters may have gotten to the team, which was something they didn’t expect to happen.
“I don't really know what to attribute that to other than being nervous,” Coon said. “All week we've been loose. They've been playing great. The practices have been wonderful, been in great spirits, and to come out in the first period and drop a few of those balls was definitely tough to swallow. I would say there were definitely some nerves there. Salisbury had the experience, like Braden said, and I thought they came out very poised.”
RIT vs. Salisbury Final Team Stats