WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – Former Eastern Connecticut State University head men's lacrosse coaches Rick McCarthy and Justin Axel – the most successful coaches in the 23-year history of the program – have opposed one-another several times in their coaching careers. But never with so much at stake.
Sunday, McCarthy and Axel will be stationed on opposite sides of the midfield stripe as respective assistant coaches when McCarthy's Wesleyan University Cardinals and Axel's Salisbury University Sea Gulls vie for the 2018 NCAA Division III national lacrosse championship beginning at 1 p.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA.
McCarthy is in his 12th season as assistant coach under John Raba at Wesleyan, while Axel is in his second stint as assistant coach and chief recruiter under 30th-year Salisbury head coach Jim Berkman (the winningest coach in NCAA Division III men's lacrosse history).
Both McCarthy (1996-02) and Axel (2008-14) spent seven seasons leading the Eastern program. A E-Club Hall of Famer, McCarthy built the foundation of the program in a part-time capacity, compiling a gaudy 91-19 record in Willimantic and leading the program to six straight regular-season conference championships, five conference tournament titles and its first four post-season tournaments.
A native of Marblehead, MA, McCarthy had come to Eastern after four years as head coach at Babson College. After leaving Eastern, McCarthy was asked to create the men's lacrosse program at Western Connecticut, staying two seasons (2003-04). After a year away from the college game, he joined Raba as a volunteer assistant at Wesleyan in 2006.
At left: With the likes of E-Club Hall of Fame players John Rubano (left) and Eddie Sheehan (right), Rick McCarthy (center) built a strong foundation for the men's lacrosse program in the 1990s.
A native of Columbia, MD, Axel is in his second stint as an assistant coach at Salisbury, where he earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees. While earning his degrees, he helped the Sea Gulls to four national titles in six seasons between 2002 and 2007 before moving on to his first head coaching assignment as the program's first fulltime head coach. At Eastern between 2008 and 2014, Axel amassed a record of 82-42, directing the program to three Little East Conference regular-season and playoff titles and three NCAA tournament appearances.
After claiming the 2014 LEC titles, Axel returned to Salisbury in 2015 as recruiting coordinator for a program which had gone two seasons (gasp!) without a national championship. The Gulls lost in the quarterfinals in Axel's first year back, but have rebounded to win their 11th and 12th national titles, defeating Tufts, 14-13, in Philadelphia in 2016 and RIT, 15-7, in Foxborough last spring, making Axel part of six national championships in nine years at his alma mater.
On Sunday, McCarthy and Axel will oppose one another for the fifth time – second time in NCAA competition, with McCarthy's teams as Raba's assistant having won all four over Axel's Warriors. The Cardinals survived a defensive struggle, 8-4, when the coaches squared off in the second round of the 2009 NCAA tournament at Wesleyan in the first meeting between the coaches. In the last confrontation in 2013, a lightning storm suspended play early in the second half at the Mansfield Outdoor Complex, but Wesleyan returned the next day to complete a 13-9 victory.
As noted, national championship games are nothing new for Salisbury (20-3), which is appearing in the title game for an unprecedented 18th time. Sunday, the Sea Gulls will be in search of three straight championships for the second time in program history. Their next title will pull them even with Hobart College for the most titles in NCAA Division III history. Salisbury is 3-0 in title games in Foxborough, having beaten SUNY Cortland twice and RIT once.
In contrast, Wesleyan (18-3) will be making its first title game showing, having had its route to the final blocked several times by conference foes Tufts University and Middlebury College, each a three-time national champion.
At left: With three Little East Conference championships which resulted in three NCAA tournament berths, Justin Axel (left) kept the program pointed in the right direction.
Salisbury has won 14 in a row, its latest an 8-7 win at Gettsburg in last weekend's national semifinals in a match where they trailed until the fourth quarter. Wesleyan avenged two earlier losses to Tufts by eliminating the Jumbos, 12-11 in the national quarterfinals, then upset undefeated No. 1-ranked RIT, 19-18, in last weekend's semifinals to reach the final for the first time. The Cardinals led by eight goals against RIT before hanging on for the victory.