After Nearly Six Decades, Wesleyan Gets Chance for National Title


Wesleyan's two-time All-American attackman Harry Stanton dodges against RIT defenseman Alex Maruna in an NCAA semifinal game Sunday in Rochester, N.Y. Stanton scored six goals, including the eventual game-winner with 1:08 remaining.

Fifty-eight years as a program. Twenty-two years with John Raba as head coach. Six trips to the NCAA tournament. Four more to the final four under Raba alone.

That’s how long Wesleyan has waited for this moment, a chance to vie for its first-ever Division III national title. On Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Cardinals will do just that against back-to-back champs Salisbury.

It’s been a long time coming, sure. But how Raba sees it, reaching this point never weighed too heavily. Not even after losing to RIT in the national semifinals last year, and upsetting the No. 1 Tigers this go around 19-18 at the their place, at the the same stage.

“To be honest, there wasn’t much talked about RIT,” Raba said, “but we wanted the opportunity to get back and play for a national championship. Now it’s about winning it. It’s great to be here, but it’ll feel just as bad to come up short.”

The same held true for Will Parker, a defensive assistant who’s been by Raba’s side for the past 20 years.

“This time of year, things have to align, players have to be healthy, what your seeding is matters,” Parker said. “Yeah, we’ve been close a lot, but it doesn’t keep us up at night. As a staff, it’s more having our guys experience all this.”

The journey sure hasn’t come without some ups and downs for Wesleyan. In the NCAA tournament alone, the Cardinals have had to knock off Cortland, Cabrini, Tufts and RIT — four programs that perennially are among the nation’s best. Raba wagered that’s probably the toughest road to Gillette Stadium of any team in Division III.

However, those challenges were never deemed too steep, according to leading scorer Carter Hawthorne (24 goals, 65 assists). Such is life when you play in the ultra-competitive NESCAC, he said.

“We never had weeks off, when other teams may play sketchy teams at the bottom of their conference,” Hawthorne said. “Every week we have to compete.”

Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Cardinals. They fell twice to Tufts, in the regular season and then in the NESCAC championship game.

Deemed the nation’s No. 1 team in preseason, they also lost 10-9 in overtime to Coast Guard way back on March 6. It was a humbling experience, said senior attackman Harry Stanton, who didn’t play against the Bears.

Afterward, they held a players-only meeting to refocus and decide how their 2018 season could be defined.

“We showed up and thought since we’re Wesleyan, we were going to win that,” said Stanton, a two-time All-American attackman. “It showed we were going to need a lot more than just showing up.”

Hawthorne expressed the same sentiment, explaining the game was moved up because of snow and the Cardinals were also balancing midterms. Those aren’t excuses, Hawthorne said, but rather set the stage for how they’d need to perform.

“The nature of playing in the NESCAC and getting an out-of-conference team, you can lose focus some, but they were better as a team,” Hawthorne said. “We weren’t as mentally prepared as we should’ve been despite being a senior-heavy team.”

Focus will be a buzzword for the Cardinals all week, Raba said, as they build up to a quasi-home game against Salisbury. Since they’re from central Connecticut, Raba added, alumni and family are expected to turn Gillette Stadium red.

“It really should be the best day for Wesleyan athletics we’ve ever had,” Raba said.

But to send fans home smiling, they’ll have to test themselves against the best. Salisbury has won 14 straight games, taken home 12 national titles, and captured 21 CAC titles. They’re riding high, taking down two Centennial Conference teams — Dickinson and Gettysburg — in the NCAA tournament.

None of that is intimidating Wesleyan, though. That’s because, Raba said, final exams are all wrapped up. The Cardinals will hold a graduation ceremony for their seniors on Wednesday. Otherwise, they view this as just another week of lacrosse. 

The only disadvantage Wesleyan might have, Hawthorne siad, is that it is not used to playing at the home of the New England Patriots or in an NFL stadium whatsoever, unlike its opponent.

“The field is the same size, the goals are the same size, it’s still 60 minutes, and it’s still a lacrosse game,” Hawthorne said.

As for Stanton, he hopes Wesleyan channels its approach last weekend against RIT. The Cardinals built a 17-9 lead before a furious late-game rally by the Tigers and held on for a 19-18 victory.

“It’s going to come down to who’s bigger than the moment,” Stanton said. “We’ll step up.”

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