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UMass looks to gain momentum heading into must-win weekend

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(Amanda Joinson/Collegian)

For a team who was ranked as high as No. 10 in the country, picked to repeat as Atlantic 10 champions and coming off an undefeated year in 2008 in conference play, it’s hard to believe the Massachusetts field hockey team is in a must-win situation in its last two conference games.

After starting their A-10 schedule with three-straight losses, – in addition to a loss to Connecticut before starting A-10 play – the No. 19 Minutewomen were able to bounce back with an offensive explosion Sunday against Saint Louis, but the skid may have ended too late. UMass (10-7, 1-3 A-10) currently sits in sixth place in the seven-team conference – St. Louis, who is winless in A-10 play, sits in last place – and needs to move up within the top four if it wants to qualify for the conference tournament that is hosted in Amherst on Nov. 6-7.

To do so, the Minutewomen need victories in their last two conference games against fifth-place La Salle on Friday and third-place West Chester on Sunday, both of which are at home; a loss in either contest would eliminate the Minutewomen.

Even if UMass is able to win both games, its destiny is uncertain. With two wins for UMass and a Temple win over St. Louis, a loss to Richmond could create a three-way tie for the final two positions in the tournament. In that case, it could come down to the fourth tie breaker, goal differential. There is even a possibility of a four-way tie if Saint Joseph’s falls in its final two games of conference play.

“They’re very important because if we don’t win them, we don’t make the tournament. We really have to take it one day at a time, sharpen up, stay relaxed, score some goals, and hopefully the rest will take care of itself,” UMass coach Justine Sowry said. “We still have control of our own destiny so we have to stick together as a team and put some goals in the back of the net.”

The Minutewomen play today against Dartmouth in Amherst – a non-conference game – in hopes of building some momentum off of their 10-1 rout over St. Louis. The Big Green (7-7, 3-2 Ivy League) are coming off a 2-1 win over conference foe Columbia and will not be an easy game for UMass.

While the contest may mean nothing to whether or not the Minutewomen make the A-10 Tournament, it is important for them to keep winning and find some offensive rhythm. In UMass’ four-game losing streak against UConn, St. Joe’s, Temple and Richmond, its offense managed to score just one goal, in a 2-1 double-overtime loss at Temple. In the four games the Minutewomen were outscored 9-1, and 6-1 in the three A-10 conference games.

With Alesha Widdall in goal for UMass, just a little offense will go a long way for the Minutewomen, especially against its two remaining opponents. West Chester averages 2.11 goals per game and La Salle averages 1.67 per game, ranking near the middle of the A-10, and the two give up 1.99 and 2.51 goals per game, respectively, compared to UMass’ 1.43.

The Minutewomen’s nearly record 10-goal game against St. Louis may seem as if they are out of their offensive funk, but the 10 goals came against a Billikens squad who allows 7.08 goals per game. The Minutewomen hope to play similar as they did against St. Louis today against Dartmouth, who allows 3.17 goals per game, to set them up for the final weekend of conference play.

“What was great about our play against Saint Louis, we were unselfish as a team. We passed the ball around rather than going at it one-on-one. We passed to the open player on the field to get quality shots off,” Sowry said. “If we play together as a team and avoid situations where we go one-on-one, our offense is capable of scoring and the Saint Louis game was an example of that.”

The struggles for UMass to start its A-10 schedule came as a surprise to many. After a perfect year in 2008 in the conference, the Minutewomen were picked to repeat, and still did as it had a strong beginning to the season. The Minutewomen started the year 5-1 as it climbed the national polls, and were a perfect 3-0 against ranked opponents in that stretch. UMass has since gone 5-6, and 0-3 against ranked opponents.

The recent struggles come largely in part to the fact that the Minutewomen have faced a lot of injuries and face possibly one of its biggest with Jill Powers now out for the rest of the season. With its depleted bench, UMass had to play numerous games with minimal subs and even some with no subs, tiring out the team for the stretch run.

“We’re still short on numbers. Jill Powers broke her foot Friday, and she’s out indefinitely for the rest of the season,” Sowry said. “We have a couple starters out, but we have players coming off the bench and we’re relying on some freshman and young players to provide solid performances.”

Jeffrey R. Larnard can be reached at jlarnard@student.umass.edu.

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