Mael Walkowiak is not a typical defensive midfielder for the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team.
The senior decided to replace his goalie stick for a short stick last spring, giving up his lifelong position as goalkeeper for good. Walkowiak, who transferred from Queens University in Charlotte, N.C. in 2009, made his drastic personal change when he realized he was behind starter goalkeeper Tim McCormack and former Minuteman Steve Mahle on the depth chart.
“It was really hard. Especially at this level where you start playing, and everyone starts gunning for you,” said Walkowiak about the adversity he faced early in the process of learning his new position.
The Salem, Mass. native felt his goalkeeping skills aided his transition. His high school lacrosse coach required him to use a short stick in drills and during his goalkeeping days, he would run out of the net to initiate fast breaks on offense.
Walkowiak was forced to cradle one-handed far more frequently than he did during his days in net, which included using his left hand for the first time in the sport. He also mentioned that something as simple as positioning on the field was a drastic difference.
“The coordination’s completely different, from knowing where you are in the net and seeing where everyone is on the field to knowing where you are on the field in relation to where the net is,” he said.
Walkowiak saw limited playing time last year during the process of settling into his new position, with much of his play coming in the latter half of the season. This year he will be used primarily on the man-down team, in addition to providing leadership and a sense of energy on the field.
UMass coach Greg Cannella had nothing but praise for the senior.
“I think he’s earned everything that he’s gotten and it does say a lot about him as a person,” he said.
McCormack believes Walkowiak’s goalkeeping past gives him an edge over the other defensive midfielders.
“He’s always on the same page as I am,” McCormack, a captain of the 2011 squad said.
Walkowiak believes that knowing the mindset of a goalkeeper is a tremendous help, and he is also willing to risk his body to deflect a shot attempt at McCormack. That sense of fearlessness is his unique contribution to the defensive zone.
“I’m starting to fit my role much better,” he said. Walkowiak later went on to say that he expects to “kill penalties, clear the ball, play good defense and … try to set Tim [McCormack] up with the best possible outside shots.”
In the early going, the transition was rough for the newly appointed defender. Changing positions at such a late stage in his career initiated doubts about his decision and ability.
Opponents would frequently seize opportunities to attack Walkowiak, repeatedly putting his skills and progress to the test. However, the spike in repetitions helped him in the long run as he was able to critique his 1-on-1 defense.
Playing for UMass has been a dream-come-true for the 22-year-old.
“I’ve been coming to UMass lacrosse games since I started playing,” he said.
He was even in attendance at Garber Field for the Minutemen’s overtime thriller over Syracuse, 14-13, in 2005 during his first year of playing lacrosse.
“That memory … of them going after one of the top teams in the country and … being relentless about it has always stuck with me,” he said. “I always imagined myself as a Minuteman when I got older.”
That dream had to be put off until 2009, as the first wave of recruiting did not yield an offer from the team. Walkowiak played one year at the Division II level before capitalizing on an opportunity to play for UMass.
“Even with the position change, it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.”
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org