Along the hallways of Boyden Gym hangs an elongated banner celebrating the achievements the Massachusetts women’s lacrosse team, including its first ever NCAA championship victory in 1982, four trips to the NCAA tournament and three Atlantic 10 championships.
The most recent addition to this banner is the Minutewomens’ 2010 A-10 title, written right next to its 2009 conference championship.
On Wednesday, UMass begins its season with a chance to add another line of script to that banner.
The Minutewomen ended last season 10-10, with a 5-2 record in the A-10. After beating Richmond, 12-10, in the conference finals, UMass was upended, 15-12, by Stanford in its play-in bid to reach the NCAA tournament.
Returning 10 of 12 starters from last season and seven of their top eight point scorers, the Minutewomen appear to have the depth necessary to make another run at the A-10 title this season.
“I really expect our team to be pretty balanced, not only between the defensive end all the way through the attack, but I really think we’re going to see contributors from every single grade,” McMahon said.
Lyons, the defending A-10 Offensive Player of the Year and the Minutewomen’s leader in goals (49), assists (20) and points (69), heads a group of 17 letterwinners on this year’s roster.
UMass will play under new head coach Angela McMahon following Alexis Venechanos’ departure to Ohio State during the offseason.
McMahon, a former player at UMass (2001) and assistant coach under Venechanos (2007-08), returns to the Amherst campus to coach many players whom she helped to recruit like the eight juniors and three seniors on the squad.
“She was here my freshman year,” senior midfielder Haley Smith said. “Me and Jackie and Nazy [Kerr] have actually had her before, and it’s good to see a familiar face.”
A scouting and recruiting specialist as an assistant, McMahon brought in a group of 10 freshmen this season, six of them midfielders. She will rely on her trio of seniors to provide guidance to the first-year players.
“I think we’re trying to put a lot of the leadership and the ownership on the players themselves, as opposed to it constantly coming from the coaches,” McMahon said. “I think they hear from us enough during practice and games that it means a little bit more when it’s coming from one of their teammates because they know that they’re going through the same thing.”
The Minutewomen are the favorites to repeat as conference champions, according to a poll taken by A-10 coaches (62 points, four first-place votes).
Similar to last season, the road to a third-consecutive conference title will likely go through the Spiders, who finished second in preseason voting (61 points, three first-place votes).
UMass hosts Richmond on April 17 in its final home game.
La Salle, third in the preseason poll (46 points), hosts the Minutewomen on April 3 and Temple, the only other team to receive a first-place vote (36 points), will travel to Amherst on April 1 for the UMass conference opener.
Their 11-3 record dating back to 2009 evidences the Minutewomen’s success in conference play and McMahon is no stranger to Northeast play, given her past experience with UMass and as a head coach at Connecticut (2009-10).
“Having coached here, I know every single Northeast team that we play or local team that we play is a battle,” McMahon said.
Yet the Minutewomen finished the 2010 season 5-8 in non-conference games, and the new head coach is pinpointing that area as one in need of improvement.
“I think that we’re always right in every single game with the top non-conference opponents, but I would really like us to now have the upper hand in that and hopefully now the girls have that confidence that they can really start putting teams away, as opposed to letting teams staying in games,” McMahon said.
UMass faces three NCAA tournament qualifiers from last season, including
five-time NCAA champion No. 2 Northwestern at McGuirk Stadium on March 26. For McMahon and assistant coach Sarah Albrecht, it will be their first game coaching against their former head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller and the second game played under the lights in the program’s history.
The Minutewomen also play American East Conference winner No. 18 Boston University on Feb. 23 to begin a three-game road trip and meet NCAA tournament team Marist on March 22.
The 11-week road to the A-10 tournament commences Wed. in Worcester against Holy Cross at 3 p.m. and the struggle for Bay State supremacy is not lost upon the players.
“Honestly, all of our non-conference opponents are really tough, but typically the team gets fired up for the in-state rivals, the local state schools,” McMahon said.
“It’s always a battle [with Holy Cross]. It’s always a one or two goal game with them.
We’re trying to not look past any opponent. Right now, we’re focusing on Holy Cross and hopefully coming out on top with that game.”
As a motivator for the Minutewomen, Lyons expressed similar emotions regarding their first non-conference game.
“Every year is a new year and every year a new team, different styles of play and I think we just need to take it one game at a time,” Lyons said. “When we start getting into tournaments, we can focus on that, but for now we just have to take it a game at a time.”
Dan Gigliotti can be reached at email@example.com.