CAMBRIDGE – The No. 5 Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team has a team objective to hold its opponents to eight goals or less each game. Although they won their first two contests, the Minutemen failed to reach that mark.
On Saturday, UMass had no choice but surpass that goal as the offense was held in check by Harvard goalkeeper Harry Krieger (13 saves). But the defense responded with a strong game of its own and the Minutemen came away with the 8-6 win in front of 1,137 at Soldiers Field.
Sloppy play dominated most of the second half, and it carried into the fourth quarter with UMass (3-0) leading 7-4. Big hits and loose balls dictated the play early on in the fourth quarter, and the Crimson (0-1) capitalized with 9 minutes, 6 seconds remaining in the game when Alex White scored his third goal of the afternoon to cut the deficit to 7-5.
All the momentum was on Harvard’s side, and it appeared as if the Minutemen were losing control of the game. But Matt Whippen deflated the Crimson with 5:36 remaining when he scored his second goal of the game off a feed by Connor Mooney.
Harvard responded with a man-up goal 36 seconds later to make it 8-6. But that would be all it would get as UMass controlled possession of the ball the rest of the way and the defensemen never gave the Crimson a chance to get back in it.
“It was excellent,” UMass coach Greg Cannella said of the defense. “(Assistant coach Doc Schneider) prepares those guys the right way each and every week, and challenges those guys each and every week, and they performed.
“Overall it was a very good defensive team effort.”
At the heart of the defensive effort was UMass goalkeeper Zachary Oliveri, who made eight saves for the game. The redshirt freshman was coming off a big 18 save performance against North Carolina last week, but this performance was just as effective with the Minutemen offense struggling to score. Oliveri made a pair of saves with his lower body, and one with his stick for a second quarter shutout.
“That’s my job for (the team),” Oliveri said. “They’re working hard all game, so you gotta reward them with great stops, and that comes from great defense and making the saves.”
UMass got off to a fast start as Whippen continued his breakthrough season with a goal at 13:19 in the first quarter. The junior received a pass from behind the net by Bobby Tyler in stride and fired it in to give the Minutemen the 1-0 advantage.
With two goals on Saturday, Whippen has a team-high 10 points this season for UMass. The midfielder didn’t score and saw limited action in each of his first two seasons with the Minutemen, but is now an essential part to their success.
“He’s playing with confidence, and for Matt that’s the key,” Cannella said. “We just hope he keeps that going for sure.”
Grant Whiteway doubled UMass’ lead with his third goal of the year at 12:16. But Harvard responded in the latter stages of the quarter with goals from Jack Walker at 6:16, and White at 1:07.
The Minutemen outscored Harvard 4-0 in the quarter despite only outshooting the Crimson 9-8 in the frame. Sean Cleary and Kyle Smith put UMass back up a pair with goals 46 seconds apart. Smith’s tally came on a shot in front of the net while being knocked to the ground by the Harvard defense.
K.R. Jurgelevich made it 5-2 with 6:51 left in the first half. The senior took it upon himself and found an alley towards the net to fire the ball past Krieger. Mooney made it 6-2 at halftime with his goal with 1:05 remaining in the second.
Andrew Sokol also built upon his strong start with his sixth goal and team-high 10th point of the year at 12:32 in the third quarter to make it 7-3 UMass. Sokol scored unassisted after he spun off the Harvard defender and threw it into the net.
The Minutemen have needed such performances from role players with the absence of Will Manny, Colin Fleming and James Fahey, and will continue to need it going forward.
“It’s unfortunate that some of our guys have been down,” Whippen said. “We need to be a successful team here, so we need guys to step up, having some guys fill the roles. So we move on from here and hopefully the guys get healthy.”
UMass returns to Garber Field on Saturday for a 2 p.m. tilt with Brown.
Nick Canelas can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.