The No. 13 Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team emphasized throughout the preseason the importance of putting the past behind, and focusing on being the 2013 team.
With a number of key players from last year’s roster gone due to graduation, UMass coach Greg Cannella called upon some of the less experienced players to step up and fill the void this season.
On Sunday, Cannella got his wish as the Minutemen were aided by some unlikely heroes in a convincing 16-9 season-opening win over Army in front of the 534 fans filling the snow-covered seats at Garber Field.
Much of the hype heading into the regular season revolved around senior attackman Will Manny and Kyle Smith. But it was the midfielders that stole the show in this one, led by the second line of junior Matt Whippen (five goals, one assist), sophomore Andrew Sokol (three goals, three assists) and freshman Dan Muller (two goals, one assist), all of whom accounted for zero UMass points combined last year.
“It’s very important having those guys get out there, get some real game experience against a very good Army team and seeing some positive things happen that’ll hopefully give them some confidence and also help motivate them to work even harder,” Cannella said.
Even with senior Colin Fleming out with an undisclosed injury, the midfielders scored 14 goals while senior Bobby Tyler chipped in with four assists. Manny and Smith split the other two Minutemen goals.
Redshirt freshman goalkeeper Zachary Oliveri got his first collegiate start on Sunday after beating out junior goalie Reed Goodhue for the starting job and made the most of his opportunity with seven saves, including a couple of big ones to keep the game in UMass’ favor.
Alex Van Krevel gave the Black Knights (0-1) a chance to tie the game at two early in the first quarter with a shot right in front of the net, but Oliveri quickly got a piece of the ball with his stick to knock it away. Then in the third quarter, the redshirt freshman denied John Glesener with his foot on a shot that was low but appeared to be on its way into the back of the net with the Minutemen (1-0) up 11-6.
“You need your goalie to do that,” Cannella said. “That’s why those guys are in there. Zach’s in there for that reason. He’s been very consistent the year and a half he’s been here, he redshirted last year, and we’re happy for him because it should give him confidence.
The teams were tied at four after the first quarter following a sluggish start by UMass, but the Minutemen quickly took control when Muller put them up 5-4 early in the second.
Army replaced its starting goalie Sam Somers following Muller’s goal, and let Bobby Sincero bear the brunt of a 15-shot onslaught by UMass in the quarter. Whippen and Sokol also scored to put the Minutemen up 7-5 at halftime.
UMass asserted its dominance by opening the third quarter with four unanswered goals, capped off by Manny’s tally to make it 11-5 with 10:34 left in the frame. The Minutemen outshot Army 15-3 in the third and Whippen added his third and fourth goals of the game. The junior found the back of the net for the fifth time early in the fourth quarter to give UMass a comfortable 14-8 advantage.
“It’s something new,” Whippen said. “Nothing that I’ve ever felt before. (But) I’m not worried about myself right now, just more worried about the first win of the season. It’s a good way to start off.”
Connor Mooney scored twice for the Minutemen while K.R. Jurgelevich had a third period tally of his own.
UMass outshot the Black Knights 47-30 for the game, and scored three times on the extra-man opportunities, twice on goals by Sokol.
“Before the game started (Cannella) was saying ‘guys gotta step up,’” Sokol said. “With guys like Colin Fleming out Coach was just saying ‘who’s gonna step up?’ Second line midfield played great today.”
The Minutemen have their biggest test of the young season on Saturday when they play against No. 7 North Carolina in a neutral site game at Kennesaw State in Atlanta, Ga., at 1 p.m.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.