Getting better year after year under coach Alexis Venechanos, the Massachusetts women’s lacrosse team wants to take it one step further this season.
“The goal every season is to get better and play up to our potential,” Venechanos said after Monday’s practice.
Entering her fourth season with the Minutewomen, Venechanos has already accomplished something which had not been done in 25 years – taking UMass back to the NCAA Tournament.
Along with an NCAA Tournament berth in 2009, Venechanos led the Minutewomen to an Atlantic 10 regular season title and the A-10 Tournament title. After dropping its first three contests of the season, UMass won 11 games – its most since 2003 – including six of seven conference games. The Minutewomen finally reached the NCAA Tournament, an opportunity that eluded them in 2008.
The previous season, UMass rallied late in the season to sneak into the A-10 Tournament. In an exciting overtime upset of No. 1 Richmond, the Minutewomen were one win away from earning a trip to the NCAA Tournament. UMass, however, fell just short, ending the season with a 7-11 overall record, while going 4-3 in A-10 play.
In Venechanos’ inaugural season in 2007, the Minutewomen achieved an 8-9 overall mark, but failed to qualify for the A-10 Tournament with a 3-4 conference record. Despite failing to return to the A-10 Tournament, Venechanos laid the framework for the next few seasons.
Experience comes with winning, and Venechanos feels her team gained a lot of that with their accomplishments last season.
“Our out-of-conference schedule last year, like years past, was challenging,” Venechanos said. “The experience of being in championship settings is something you can’t coach on the field.”
Unlike the past few years, UMass is now the favorite and was picked to repeat as A-10 champions this season in voting conducted by the league’s head coaches.
“We’re in a unique situation where we have a target on our back, but we’re still excited and we’re going up against the top teams,” Venechanos said.
“It just makes us step up our game more and work harder every day,” junior Jackie Lyons said. “We are the champions, so everybody is going to try to get back at us, so we have to challenge each other.”
Even though the Minutewomen claimed the A-10 title, they don’t feel like the favorite, but rather consider themselves underdogs.
“We’re always going to be an underdog, I think that’s the mentality of our program and the types of players we bring in are very blue-collar,” Venechanos said. “Last year, even when we were the top seed, we went out on the field with something to prove, and we relish in that goal.”
Being a fairly young squad, the Minutewomen lost only three of 12 starters from last season while adding eight freshmen, comprised of four attacks, two midfields, one defenseman and one goalkeeper. Most of last season’s core returns in Lyons, Merritt Cosgrove, and Katie Florence.
Lyons led UMass last year in scoring with 44 goals and 27 assists and was a first-team All-Conference selection as well as a U.S. developmental team selection as only a sophomore.
Cosgrove brings experience to the midfield, being only one of three seniors on this year’s squad.
“I’ve played in every scenario by now,” Cosgrove said. “[Our seniors] have gone through a lot where we take that experience into every game and get the other girls riled up to go with us.”
In 53 career games, Cosgrove has scored 21 goals and totaled 67 draw controls in three seasons with the Minutewomen.
Goalkeeper Katie Florence enters her second year after earning All-Rookie team honors in her freshman season.
Though this year’s team has only a few seniors and many freshmen, Cosgrove believes that the leadership will come from different sources.
“We have a lot of leaders on the team,” Cosgrove said. “We have three captains that are underclassmen. It’s not like other teams where the seniors take over. You see it with the freshmen coming out here and pushing everyone, so the leadership is really spread across the board.”
The Minutewomen will continue rivalries this season against Harvard, New Hampshire and Yale. Also, for the first time since 2004, UMass will take on Connecticut.
Opponents will have to travel to Amherst early in the season as the Minutewomen will host five of their first seven games in McGuirk Alumni Stadium, with Holy Cross first on the schedule on Feb. 17.
Conference play will begin in late March, when UMass heads on the road to face George Washington, Richmond, Temple and Duquesne in a four-game road trip.
UMass kicks off its season in San Diego this Saturday when it faces preseason No. 1 ranked and five-time defending national champions Northwestern in a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament meeting.
Jay Asser can be reached at email@example.com.