Last season didn’t end the way the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team had envisioned.
The Minutemen were in the midst of an improbable run that included a 15-0 start, a No. 1 national ranking, a Colonial Athletic Association Championship and a bid in the NCAA Tournament. But that all came to a screeching halt when UMass fell to Colgate, 13-11, in the first round of the tournament at Garber Field – putting an unforgettable season to a disappointing end.
The worst part about that bitter ending, senior attackman Will Manny said, was not how they lost, but where they lost.
“The loss on Garber Field was the worst part,” Manny said. “One of our goals every year is to defend Garber Field and be undefeated on Garber. Losing that last one before going to neutral sights was kind of a bummer.”
But as time moved on, so did Manny and UMass.
So when the team met for the first time this season, they said: “(Last season) is old news. We’re the 2013 team,” according to Manny.
The 2013 team will get its first chance to make its own headlines when it returns to the same place where the 2012 season ended. Sunday at noon, the Minutemen open their season at Garber against Army.
But this task won’t be easy as No. 13 UMass will be without some key pieces from last year’s squad, including attackmen Anthony Biscardi (21 goals, seven assists) and Art Kell (33, 20), as well as goalkeeper Tim McCormack (7.1 goals-against average, 60.6 save percentage).
Instead, this year’s Minutemen, which UMass coach Greg Cannella considers a “work in progress,” will rely on the return of some of their biggest contributors to fill the void left by last year’s seniors. That includes Manny, who is an early candidate for the Tewaaraton Award after scoring a team-high 44 goals and 33 assists last season, making his 77 points good for third in the country.
Other key returners include senior attackman Kyle Smith and midfielder Colin Fleming. Smith was third on the team with 52 points on 33 goals and 19 assists, while Fleming’s 26 goals and eight assists (34 points) were good for fourth on the team.
While Cannella is certainly glad to have some important players back from last year’s team, there is some uncertainty in different areas of the field, such as the third spot on attack with Manny and Smith, where younger, less experienced players such as sophomore Grant Whiteway are being called upon to step in and try to fill the void.
But the impact last year’s seniors had on the team is something that Cannella said can’t simply be replaced.
“When you look at that team and you look at this team, what’s missing from this team is those guys,” he said. “You hope that younger guys kind of step up, and that’s a little bit harder for those guys if they’re a sophomore, or even some of the freshmen that are asked to play large roles because you have that 12-person gap.”
Redshirt freshman Zachary Oliveri and junior Reed Goodhue are fighting for the open goaltender spot. While Cannella hasn’t made an official decision on who will get the start on Saturday, Oliveri appears to be the front-runner based on his playing time in the preseason.
“It hasn’t really been clear,” Oliveri said. “I think it’s more impression because I think (Cannella is) trying to keep my mindset level so I can keep working hard. Me and Reed keep pushing back on one another just to get better as a unit because if both of us are good on both ends of practice then the whole team’s gonna be good.”
The Minutemen took some criticism for their relatively weaker schedule last season, and it cost them when they were given the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite being the top-ranked team in the nation.
It’s unlikely UMass will face that same criticism, however, as the Minutemen have five ranked opponents on their schedule, including No. 7 North Carolina Feb. 16, something that may better prepare them for a postseason run.
“I think it’s just a challenge,” Cannella said. “You talk about motivation I think you better be motivated to get ready to play those teams. If you’re not, they’re gonna kick the snot out of you, so you gotta be ready. Hopefully it’ll get our guys’ attention more than anything.
“Obviously we want to put together the best schedule we can for our guys to be competitive, and hopefully we can play well throughout the season,” he added.
Some of the names in the starting lineup may be different, but the expectations haven’t changed. The Minutemen are once again favorites to finish atop the CAA standings, and could find themselves back in the national spotlight by the end of the season. However, Manny is well aware that opponents are going to be hungrier this time around.
“We have a target on our back,” Manny said. “All the teams we beat last year that we have again on our schedule, they’re going to want to beat us and saying, ‘They didn’t deserve to win last year,’ all that stuff, but every team’s a new team, so you start from scratch. Every team’s 0-0.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.