The Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team fell victim to its relatively weak schedule last season.
The Minutemen (1-0) took full advantage of underachieving non-conference opponents and a down year in the Colonial Athletic Association on their way to an undefeated regular season and a conference title, but it inevitably cost them when they were handed the No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and fell to Colgate in the first round at Garber Field.
UMass responded to the criticism by adding big non-conference tests to its 2013 slate, arguably none bigger than the one this Saturday when the Minutemen take on No. 4 North Carolina in a neutral site game at Kennesaw State in Atlanta.
The Tar Heels (1-0) suffered a similar fate as UMass last year when their season ended on their home field in a disappointing loss to Denver in the first round of the tournament.
But UNC comes into this season with the top-rated recruiting class and high expectations. Senior attackman Marcus Holman has equally high expectations coming off a 74-point (39 goals, 35 assists) showing last season that accounted for 20 percent of the Tar Heels offensive output.
The captain has already made his presence felt early on this season as his two goals and six assists led UNC past Air Force, 16-8, in its season opener last weekend. The Tar Heels also got five goals from sophomore attacker Jimmy Bitter, and a hat trick from sophomore Joey Sankey and junior Ryan Creighton in the win.
“They have fantastic athletes,” UMass coach Greg Cannella said of UNC, “great team speed, great skill set. They play at 100 percent every play, so we’re obviously very impressed with their capability, but also the energy they play at and the enthusiasm they play at. It’s a fantastic team.”
The Tar Heels could potentially be the highest-ranked and most talented team the No. 12 Minutemen face all year. But Cannella has his players treating this game like any other regular season game.
“You have to. You gotta go play,” Cannella said. “We tell them the same thing about us, it doesn’t mean squat. Rankings don’t mean anything until the end of the year. So you gotta continue to try to improve.
“When you go into games like this you just gotta go play,” he said. “This is an outstanding opponent, it’s an opportunity for us, so now you gotta be able to go handle it and go play. If you look at all that other stuff then kids get overwhelmed.”
Senior attacker Kyle Smith echoed his coach’s sentiments, saying, “It’s just a regular game, and just another opponent.”
Saturday’s game against UNC, regardless of the result, is one that could potentially serve beneficial to the Minutemen in the long run.
“We definitely see it as an opportunity to prove ourselves against a very good team, but you can’t control who you put on your schedule so you just go out there and play against whoever,” Smith said. “The way we look at it is any team we play can beat us, so we have to go out and bring it every game.”
Like the Tar Heels, the Minutemen are also coming off a convincing 16-9 win over Army in their season opener on Sunday. However, what was missing was the contribution of their best players.
Smith and Will Manny were held to just a goal apiece, although Smith contributed with three assists. UMass got a majority of its production from its midfielders, which accounted for 14 UMass goals.
One of those midfielders, senior Colin Fleming, didn’t play on Sunday and didn’t fully participate in Tuesday’s practice. It is uncertain whether or not Fleming will play on Saturday.
No matter who is on the field this Saturday, Cannella is looking at this game the same way he would any other week against any other opponent.
“It’s like every other game,” he said. “It’s supposed to just prepare you and give you more experience for the future. You hope that is there for us, but you can’t treat it like it’s the biggest game of the year because it’s one of 14 games.”
Face-off is set for 1 p.m.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.