Last year, a strong core of seniors carried the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
This year’s team however, knows that it, again, has something to prove.
“The senior group every year has a lot to prove,” said UMass coach Greg Cannella. “They have to get out there and play, and prove that this team is an NCAA caliber team, because that is what we want to be. They’ve got a tough chore ahead of them, but they’ve been able to handle what’s come to them so far.”
The team has a very different look since it last took the field, and also will be playing in a different conference. UMass was realigned from the Eastern College Athletic Conference into the Colonial Athletic Conference during the off-season, and will face a swath of new opponents for the first time in a number of years.
“The change of conference is great,” said Cannella. “One of the best things that comes with the CAA is the conference championship. At the end of the year, regardless if you’re first, second, third or fourth, you have a chance at getting the automatic qualification, at winning the conference and getting into the tournament that way.”
The new conference consists of Drexel, Hofstra, Towson, Penn State and Delaware. UMass has had success against programs like the Pride and UD in the past, but is not as familiar with its new conference as it was with the ECAC.
“The difficulties are that we don’t know a lot about those teams,” said Cannella. “So we have to learn a lot about them this year. Certainly we will learn more and more as we go on, and we’ll get to know the teams and what they like to do and how they play.”
The conference schedule begins Mar. 27 against Hofstra, and is only interrupted by a game between UMass and Georgetown at UConn on April 24. The game against the Hoyas will be part of the ESPNU Warrior Classic, and is the only nationally televised game on the Minutemen’s schedule.
Three out of the five conference games are away, and more importantly are in places that UMass is not used to traveling.
“We’re going to travel to different places, and anytime there is a change and people feel that change, it creates a lot of anxiety for people who have never been there before,” said Canella. “They like familiar settings, they like familiarity, but in my opinion, we’re leaving one great conference and going to another great one.”
With the graduation of Doc Schneider, Tim Balise, Jim Connolly and others, the Minutemen also have a lot of leadership to replace. The Minutemen are bottom-heavy in terms of class, and consist of six seniors, nine juniors, 12 sophomores and 13 freshmen.
Captains Bobby Hayes, Diogo Godoi and Ryan Smith will try to bring the team together as leaders, but will have help from the coaching staff.
“We create a leadership council,” said Cannella of the process. “Every senior is on that, along with select juniors, sophomores and freshmen, and we try and bring those guys together and foster a good relationship with the team and the coaches. We make sure people are connected from the seniors all the way down to the freshman.”
One thing that UMass does have working for it is where that experience is located. The team returns Godoi, Greg Anderson and Travis Tripucka on defense, as well as defensive-minded midfielders Steve Zorkers, Ryan Liebel and Casey Rahn.
UMass’ success last year brings high expectations for this year’s group. Even though they lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Princeton, the Minutemen are working hard to do better than last year.
“I think they know what we’re working on and what we’re pushing them towards,” Cannella said.
Cannella, who is entering his sixteenth year as UMass’ head coach, has plenty of accolades on his fact sheet. Cannella holds a 131-84 record in his time in Amherst, and points to the success his teams have had as his motivation.
“You watch them mature, fight, run, lift, practice, cry and laugh, and all those things to me sitting behind this desk, that’s the least fun of it. The best part of it is to be out there on that field and get excited about playing lacrosse.”
Neil Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.