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Minutemen blank URI

Jeff Bernstein/CollegainThe Massachusetts men’s soccer team from a month ago is long gone.

September did not do the Minutemen any favors, handing them just one win through the entire opening month of their season. Midway through October however, UMass remains unbeaten in the Atlantic 10 conference with two victories following a 1-0 shutout victory over Rhode Island.

“Obviously it feels pretty good,” UMass coach Sam Koch said. “We’re not playing that well, but we’re still finding ways to win, and that’s a good sign. We’ve just got to keep improving, because we’re not where we want to be as far as winning the entire thing.”

Junior Chris Stoker is a key piece of the recent development of the Minutemen (3-3-6, 2-0-1 A-10). Like midfielders Morgan Brandso and Ben Arikian did in the first pair of A-10 matches, Stoker earned his first goal of the season, which was also the first of his collegiate career, and the game-winner against URI.

“I’ll be honest it was one of those shots that very, very few keepers, I think, could stop it,” Koch said. “[It was] in the right spot. It’s unfortunate for them.”

The game-winning goal couldn’t have been more timely, as it came in the 87th minute. Connor DeVivo came in for Stoker in the 84th minute, who returned to the match two minutes later. Just over 30 seconds back onto the pitch, Stoker nailed the game-clincher.

While the substitution might bewilder some, Koch had his own tactical plan behind the quick in-and-out substitution.

“I wanted to go over with him a couple of things that he needed to do that he wasn’t doing, give him a little rest, and then put him back in, and he was able to do the rest himself,” Koch said.

However, UMass wouldn’t be able to call this goal the game-winner if it hadn’t been for the one constant of the Maroon and White’s goalkeeper, Chris Piekos.

Piekos continued to impress between the posts against the Rams on Saturday, recording his third shutout of the year. Piekos made game-changing saves from the beginning of the game right until the end.

“Unfortunately they went against Piekos and Piekos made two very good saves that kept us in the game,” Koch said.

 The first of these saves came 12 minutes into the first half, when URI senior Greg Balicki rocketed a shot to the far post that was only saved by an extended-arm from the diving Piekos.

In the second half, Piekos saved two tough goal-scoring opportunities that kept the Minutemen from conceding a goal. Freshman Joey Haught’s header was nabbed by the Minuteman goalkeeper, as well as sophomore Matt Ribbens’ straight on-goal blast.

If it wasn’t for Stoker, however, Piekos wouldn’t have a win to show for his efforts in net.

Before Stoker’s goal, the Minutemen had plenty of other chances to earn the victory. Arikian fired up his offensive tempo, striking the ball four times, with two of his shots on target towards the net. Defenders David Key and Dominic Skrajewski also had chances at becoming the game’s savior, with both of their ill-fated attempts aimed at goal.

“Dominic is in on all the set-pieces, so he’s going to get shots on goal,” Koch said. “Key is probably our best overlapping back as far as getting into the attack. I’m not surprised that they had a couple of shots.”

UMass’ leading goal scorer, Bryant Craft, was absent from the offensive push against the Rams, which highlights another change for the Minutemen. Instead of making runs and having shots on goal, Craft dropped in his position and helped out defensively.

“Everybody’s got to play defense, and actually [he] did a good job for us defensively by coming back, taking balls off people’s feet [and] helping to block the middle,” Koch said. “At the end of the game he did a really good job, making it difficult for [URI] to get service in and putting pressure on their backs. So it wasn’t something that Craft wasn’t doing, he was picking up the other parts of his game.”

Like Craft, Koch still thinks the team can work on different elements of its game.

“We’re in good shape right now, but in all honesty it doesn’t mean that much,” Koch said. “We have a tough weekend ahead of us at Philadelphia, at Temple, that’s going to be a big game for us. We have a tough game ahead of us, and in all honesty all games are tough, so this isn’t particular, but it will be a good indication of exactly where are we in the A-10.”

As Stoker picked up the offensive slack, he also lifted the Minutemen up into the top six of the A-10 table, which puts them in the playoff picture.

Herb Scribner can be reached at hscribne@student.umass.edu.

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