In fact, in most cases, a situation like what the Massachusetts field hockey team is dealing with would be reason for a red flag. But in this sport, how you finish really is more important than how you start.
The Atlantic 10 is a one-bid conference as far as field hockey is concerned so the A-10 tournament is winner-take-all. There are no at-large bids at stake for the NCAA tournament.
The Minutewomen (4-5) are playing one of the toughest schedules in the country as they do every year, and they are running into problems early in the season.
However, UMass is no stranger to adversity.
During the 2007 season, the Minutewomen got off to a 5-6 start, then went 6-1 during the A-10 schedule, won the conference tournament, defeated Princeton during the play-in game and made the NCAA tournament.
UMass has the potential to have a similar season that it had in 2007 even if it starts play against the A-10 below .500.
For starters, the Minutewomen have already pulled off a few impressive wins, the most notable being an upset over No. 5 Connecticut, which is the Huskies’ only loss of the season so far.
Another important factor is they are significantly better than anyone else in their conference. The only team with a better non-conference record at this point is Lock Haven, who is playing a much easier schedule anyway.
Richmond is the only team in the A-10 receiving votes, which is currently on a six-game losing streak and has yet to beat a ranked opponent. While the Spiders (3-7) might have an edge when they host the Minutewomen on their home field, it’s unlikely they can beat them twice.
While UMass certainly won’t be taking its own conference for granted after starting its schedule off 0-3 last season, it is in a much better position than it was last year, even with a more successful non-conference run.
The Minutewomen can already take comfort in beating a ranked opponent and are facing tests much earlier in the season as opposed to last year. At this point of the season, they should be more concerned with the losses, and more interested in learning from them.
UMass coach Justine Sowry made this point clear to her team on Sunday when it faced Albany.
With 29 minutes left in the game, the Minutewomen held a scoreless tie until senior Katie Kelly stole the ball, led the breakaway and got around the Great Danes’ goalkeeper Kristi Troch to get a shot on an open net, but missed to the left.
Sowry’s praise did not go towards Kelly, who not only stole the ball, but maneuvered past the only person who could’ve stopped her shot, but Taylor Luke, a midfielder for Albany who dove after the ball and deflected it out of bounds.
The UMass coach immediately called timeout to explain to her team that the only way it’s going to have any success is to play with the same desperation that Luke had in playing spoiler for the Minutewomen.
“That was a great example of a player that has the will to win,” Sowry said Sunday following her team’s 1-0 loss to the Great Danes.
While Sowry probably would’ve preferred a win against Albany, that game isn’t going to affect UMass in the season’s long run. What is more important is that her players remember the great effort by Luke and apply the point Sowry made during her timeout when the games really start to matter against A-10 teams.
Last year, the Minutewomen peaked at the wrong time. They had arguably one of the best defenses in the country and were pretty much unstoppable in September to anyone not from Boston (both losses that month came to Boston University and Boston College).
In October, UMass suffered tough losses to Syracuse and UConn, and never recovered when A-10 play rolled around.
I’m not going to say the results would’ve been different had the Minutewomen faced more adversity during their non-conference schedule during the 2009 season, but considering the caliber of opponents they were beating, they should’ve done better than fourth place.
Aside from receiving the most votes to win the A-10, UMass is now under the radar and is fortunate that it will likely receive a shot of confidence when it faces winless Saint Louis at home to start off its conference schedule.
Until then, Sowry will have to do what she can to make sure her team peaks in October when it too can make great hustle plays that cause opponents to call timeout.
Adam Miller is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.