More than two decades ago, John Raba was hired as Wesleyan’s men’s lacrosse coach.
Twenty-two years, to be exact. He inherited a program with just six winning seasons across the 1980s and mid-90s.
Even when Raba and Co. started rattling off doubledigit winning seasons, the NESCAC was run by Middlebury in the 2000s, which won seven straight conference titles and three national championships. Then came Tufts’ run at the turn of the decade, with seven conference titles and three national championships of its own under head coach Mike Daly.
Wesleyan always was there competing, runner-up in the league five times and winning its only NESCAC title in 2009. More often than not, though, that final game was too far out of reach, the national stage too tall of a task.
But when 2018 rolled around, things felt different. The pieces, led by a 15-member senior class, all were there for the Middletown, Conn.-based school.
“We talked about my first season here; we won one NESCAC game,” Raba said. “If someone asked me or told me you’re going to win a national championship, I would have said to them in what sport, because it’s not going to be lacrosse the way it’s going right now.
“So in that moment, it took us a long time to kind of get the right guys we wanted, and it wasn’t an easy road. We didn’t take shortcuts academically. We did it the right way. All these kids are great student-athletes. They come here for a great education, and then the lacrosse piece; we want to make sure they understand your education is coming first.”
A great education for sure, but one that also procured a Division 3 men’s lacrosse championship.
On Memorial Day weekend at Gillette Stadium, the Cardinals won in their first-ever trip to the national title game, taking down Salisbury, 8-6. That denied Salisbury a three-peat, as the Sea Gulls beat RIT one year prior on the Foxboro, Mass., turf and beat Tufts down in Philadelphia in 2016.
Getting to this point was never a given for Wesleyan, though. It encountered a murderers’ row of sorts in the NCAA tournament, facing Cortland, Cabrini, Tufts and RIT before dethroning Salisbury. In any other year, Div. 3 bragging rights easily could belong to any of those five programs.
That proposition, according to senior defender Andres Rodriguez, an honorable-mention All-American, was never intimidating.
“This year, we finally had the chance to play some different teams and show the south as well as the north that we had what it takes,” Rodriguez said. “So we were pretty excited to just be out there and play against these guys.”
But with every championship team, there’s always a bout of adversity here or there. That was the case for Wesleyan, as the preseason No. 1 team fell 10-9 in overtime to a NEWMAC program, Coast Guard, in just the second game of the season. Then came two defeats at the hands of Tufts, including once in the NESCAC title game.
That was on the field, though. Arguably their biggest challenge occurred off it.
Senior defender Ben Shively’s father died prior to that first Tufts loss, a little-known fact in the lacrosse world, Raba said. The entire Wesleyan team drove down to Shively’s hometown in New York, then played Tufts without any practice or much preparation.
In a feel-good moment in the May 27 championship game, Shively caused a Salisbury turnover just after the Sea Gulls cut the margin to 8-6, helping stop a comeback bid.
“There was no question that’s what we needed to do as a team, as a program,” Raba said. “So for him to make a big play at the end and some of our guys to make big stops, we’ve been there. We’ve been in those tight situations before.”
So much of Wesleyan’s story in 2018, though, was defined by its top six scorers. Midfielders Cole Turpin (New Canaan, Conn.), Christian Barker and Taylor Ghesquiere combined for 97 goals. Then there was the attack trio of Harry Stanton (New Canaan, Conn.), Ronan Jacoby (Glastonbury, Conn.) and Carter Hawthorne, who combined for 152 goals.
As impactful as each player was in the title run, Stanton’s legacy on Wesleyan lacrosse stands out. The senior produced 224 career goals, a program record, and 287 points, the second most in team history. A third-team All-American this spring, he also took home most outstanding player honors for the two goals and assist he had against Salisbury.
“We’ve had a tough year,” Stanton said. “We’ve faced some real-life adversity. It’s just you see how many parents were there for us, you know? Even a tailgate up at Colby or something, you just realize it’s so much bigger than us and how much joy you can bring to your friends and families. It’s funny that it really is the difference between winning and losing, but I think our parents and our families are really proud of us.”
That greater sense of appreciation wasn’t lost on senior captain Eric Meyreles either, especially seeing Wesleyan turning out loud and proud at Gillette Stadium. With the game a two-hour drive from campus, Cardinal red filled up three full sections of lower-level seats. By comparison, Salisbury fans barely filled up one.
“It means a lot not just to our team, but the people that came before us,” Meyreles said. “It was awesome.”
For Raba, much credit also went to a vast network of support, from the administrative to the personal.
The university’s president held a special graduation ceremony for their seniors the Wednesday prior to facing Salisbury. Then there were chats with Daly, now the Brown coach, and Andy Shay of Yale, who ended up winning the Division 1 title over Duke. Raba also emailed some with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, a Wesleyan alumnus who is a noted lacrosse fan.
“If you don’t have that team behind you, it would be very difficult to get to this moment,” Raba said. “Then, obviously, it just takes a lot of effort. We had tremendous support and it paid off. We were ready to go for Salisbury.”
Ready enough to storm out to a 4-0 lead over Salisbury in the first quarter, and then open up an 8-4 lead heading into the fourth. The game, save for a late push by head coach Jim Berkman’s group, never was really in doubt.
And just like that, Raba and Wesleyan lacrosse had their moment. It took nearly 60 years for the program to reach this point, and they reached three prior final fours. All it took was one, though, for the national championship to finally belong to the Cardinals.
“We’ve been to a few final fours and we were very close a couple times,” Raba said. “But to finally get to the championship was great. But we also told them it’s still going to hurt as much if we lose the game. If it was a semifinal game or any game, let’s win it. Our guys did a great job of stepping up and taking it.”