Defeating a Top 10 team once can easily be dismissed as a fluke. It’s not until a team can do it again and in convincing fashion, that it shows its true ability.
After its victory over Syracuse on Sunday, the Massachusetts field hockey team has done just that. There are many factors that go into why the Minutewomen (5-6) have now successfully pulled off two upsets over their biggest rivals.
You could argue that the senior leadership, which is showing a lot of poise between adversity and stiff competition. Another argument could be made for forward Katie Kelly, who leads the team with six goals on the season and is a scoring threat no matter where she is on the field.
While both aspects are important to the recent success of UMass, neither are as big of a staple to the team as the woman between the goal posts: Alesha Widdall.
The junior is having the best season of her career, boasting a 1.25 goals-against average and a 0.816 save percentage. She is already making a name for herself this year with the No. 6 save percentage in the country and the 14th-best GAA.
If the Minutewomen hope to advance far in the postseason, they will need to ride Widdall’s shoulders. So far, the non-conference schedule indicates that UMass isn’t going to win games outscoring its opponents, which make Widdall’s role that much more important.
When the Maroon and White begin Atlantic 10 play this weekend, their biggest area of concern is its offense. The Minutewomen have 12 goals on the season, and despite having one of the toughest schedules in the country, that fact still has to be a red flag for UMass coach Justine Sowry.
But with a solid goalkeeper like Widdall, Sowry likely isn’t as worried about her team’s chances as she would be if her junior wasn’t a stable force in net.
“She is always outstanding,” Sowry said following the Minutewomen’s 2-0 win over the Orange. “With a quality goalkeeper back there, we can play more aggressive, and having her back there really gives the team great confidence.”
The biggest threat to UMass winning the A-10 title is red-hot Lock Haven. The Lady Eagles (9-5) have the best record in the A-10 and have the highest amount of goals, but don’t have any wins against teams in the NFCA Top 20.
The last time Lock Haven played against anyone with the goalkeeping skills of Widdall was on Sept. 12 in a 3-1 loss to Penn State. If the Minutewomen hope to achieve the same result, Widdall will have to be at her best when the two teams play on Oct. 15.
However, what Widdall does in one game isn’t as important as what she does against the entire A-10.
UMass runs the risk of putting itself in bad position for the postseason with more than two losses. If Widdall’s play early in the season is any indication of what might happen against A-10 opponents, she should be in good shape, especially with four home games on the slate.
Ever since the Minutewomen lost to Indiana on August 29, the back of the net at Garber Field has been impenetrable thanks to the defense and Widdall’s work. UMass has outscored opponents, 5-1, while Widdall has three shutouts (all of which are at home) on the season.
The lone goal in that stretch came against Albany, which even Sowry admits outhustled the Minutewomen for that score, meaning Widdall should have little trouble dominating A-10 opponents at home.
If Widdall continues to hold opponents to no more than one goal, UMass should have little trouble rolling through the second half of the year. While many coaches might see this as too much pressure to put on a goalkeeper, Sowry isn’t going to think twice about Widdall’s ability to handle it.
When she talks about her team as a whole, Sowry likes to mention Widdall as the fourth “senior” because of her poise. And that poise is exactly what’s going to make the Minutewomen an NCAA tournament team.
Adam Miller is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.