To call the Massachusetts men’s soccer team young may be an understatement.
After graduating eight players and a graduate student last year, the Minutemen were left with only three seniors coming into this season, including goalkeeper Brian Frame entering his first full year as a starter.
However, it was the underclassmen, not the seniors, that carried the load for a team that finished with a disappointing 4-13-2 mark last year.
Of the six players to score a goal last season, four of them were first or second-year players, including Brett Canepa and Josh Schwartz, who were the team’s only multi-goal scorers.
One thing that UMass coach Sam Koch pointed to before the season was the amount of injuries his team faced last year, forcing him to insert the younger players into the lineup.
Although the results were not what they were hoping for — the Minutemen failed to make the Atlantic 10 tournament — the younger players did gain something valuable: experience.
Canepa believes that experience from last season helped shaped this year’s squad and has formed a stronger core of leaders.
“We got a pretty good core of guys that are stepping up,” Canepa said. “Older guys: seniors, juniors, sophomores, and they’re all helping out.
“We’re leading as a team and we’re all coming together, showing the new guys the ropes.”
Assistant coach Devin O’Neill has especially taken notice of the leadership even in his first season with the team.
“I think we’ve got some great leadership within the squad,” O’Neill said. “Some of those guys who know what it takes to be successful in college soccer, they’re letting the young guys know because this is new territory for the younger guys.”
The need for leadership is especially important on a roster with 15 freshmen, but Canepa feels the first-year players are embracing the opportunity.
“When you come in as a freshman, it’s like a clean sheet, your expectations are always high,” Canepa said. “You (have to) bust your butt. You want to get on the field and help the team out as much as possible.”
It’s been the same old story so far for Schwartz and Canepa, who are, yet again, atop the scoring list for UMass (2-2-2). Schwartz has a pair of goals as a sophomore and Canepa has a goal and an assist as a junior.
This also appears to be the case for the rest of the Minutemen as all five of their goal scorers are either in their second or third seasons at UMass.
What’s different this time around is the Minutemen are seeing better results on the field as they are halfway to last season’s win total through six games (2).
Canepa saved UMass from its third loss of the season on Saturday when his goal with two seconds remaining in regulation knotted the score at one against New Hampshire, leading to an eventual draw.
The theme, however, for this team throughout this young season has not been about the personal accolades, but constantly growing and improving as a team.
This is especially the case for the team’s top point-scorer from last season, Canepa.
“Being the point-leader last year didn’t really mean anything. We barely produced any wins last year,” Canepa said. “I’ve come into this season not worrying about scoring points, but getting my teammates better and coming together as a team.”
With a roster loaded with younger players, it’s likely the next season or two should gradually bring improving results. But Canepa sees the team making progress as the season continues and thinks they’ll be ready to make an impact as soon as conference play opens up on Oct. 6 at Rhode Island.
“We’re on that steady incline going up and we’re getting a lot better,” Canepa said. “As conference play approaches we’re all feeling pretty good as a team coming together.
“We got a few things to work on. We’re almost there we just got to keep working day in and day out and get better.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Canelas.