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Minutewomen looking to build off 2009

Amanda Joinson/Collegian

Click here for our breakdown of the Minutewomen’s 2010 roster.

Click here for Adam Miller’s thoughts on conference scheduling and how it affects UMass.

Click here for coverage of the field hockey team’s season-opening series in Boston. 

Every fall, students flock to campuses across the world for the start of another challenging academic year. As if freshman year isn’t daunting enough for incoming students, the Massachusetts field hockey team will depend on a select few of those first-years to lead their team to another Atlantic 10 conference tournament.

Justine Sowry returns to the helm for her fourth consecutive year as head coach, and this season she will try to return the team to its 2008 form when it won the A-10 title.

In three seasons at UMass, she is 43-23 and 15-4 in A-10 play. Sowry has also recorded two conference championships and two NCAA tournament appearances as well as a 17-3 record in 2008.

The Minutewomen got off to a hot start in 2009, jumping out to a 7-2 record and beating top-ranked squads like Providence, James Madison and Iowa in the process. The team peaked midway through the year and earned a No. 9 national ranking before hitting a few speed bumps.

UMass collapsed in the second half of their season, succumbing to injuries and inconsistent play from just about everyone on the field. The team went 2-5 over its next seven games before rallying to win three of its last four contests.

The Minutewomen finished with a 12-9 overall record and a 3-3 mark in conference play, which was good enough to squeak into the A-10 tournament. However, they subsequently fell to Richmond in a 2-1 overtime loss to end the season.

In 2010, things should be different. In spite of adding 10 new freshmen to the roster, the Minutewomen are the preseason favorite to win the A-10 conference title. With a sea of new faces and a lot of work yet to be done, Sowry remains confident in her team’s chances.

“The girls have done terrific so far,” Sowry said. “We’ve added athleticism, speed, strength and energy and we have tremendous depth this year. There’s a lot of exciting young talent on display.”

Yet, when this year’s squad was selected as the favorite to win the conference championship, it came as a bit of a shock to Sowry and her staff.

“I’m not a fan of [being picked] at all,” Sowry said. “We don’t deserve that right now. Last year our performance in the A-10 tournament wasn’t good at all.”

However, Sowry was quick to point out that preseason and practices have gone well and she expects her team to compete with the best.

“Right now we’re trying to stay focused and stay enthusiastic,” Sowry said. “We’re building towards A-10s and hopefully we’ll be firing on all cylinders. It’s no walk in the park, but we have tremendous leaders this year and some talented newcomers who we expect to get a lot of things done for us.”

The make-up of the field hockey schedule is an annual debate of sorts. Like always, less than half of UMass’ opponents are conference teams, and of those teams, only a handful will be a true test for the Minutewomen.

While seven games are against A-10 opponents, the other 13 are against juggernaut programs that will test the will and might of the Minutewomen squad early and often.

UMass faces seven of the 16 NCAA tournament teams from 2009 including Maryland, which has won three of the last five national championships. Also on tap this season are perennial powerhouses Boston College, Indiana, Connecticut, American, Syracuse and Richmond. Boston University and Lock Haven make nine teams who have made the NCAA tournament recently and round out what Sowry calls the toughest schedule she’s had at UMass.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out,” Sowry said. “We want to get into a position where we can get an at-large bid in the future. It’s my priority to have a competitive schedule so I try to schedule top-10 opponents. It makes the girls better. It’s going to be tough but we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”

UMass lost three players from last season to graduation, but returns nine of 11 starters, including seniors on each of the lines. Defender Jamie Bourazeris anchors the defensive line while All-American midfielder Makaela Potts directs the action in the center of the field. Forward Katie Kelly is the only player guaranteed to start on the front line, and All-Conference and U.S. junior national team goalkeeper Alesha Widdal will attempt to turn away anything that gets behind her defense.

The seniors will be joined by 10 new freshmen and international transfer students Melanie Sutherland and Thando Zono. Sutherland will be a freshman despite having played two seasons at Seaford College in England, and Zono comes to UMass as a junior from Grahamstown, South Africa and the junior national team.

Sowry expects her new players to make an immediate impact and get the team off to another hot start.

“[Thando] and Melanie have played a lot more overseas,” Sowry said. “They will bring a lot of instinct to our team that we lacked last year. And our freshman look great so far and we expect them to get right in there against the best and come up with some great play for us. It’s going to be a fun year.”

Michael Wood can be reached at mcwood@student.umass.edu.

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