Will Manny is as comfortable as ever when he steps onto Garber Field for the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team.
He’s energized, but he’s relaxed. He’s excited, but he’s focused. Everything is the same as it ever was.
He sports his usual white jersey with the No. 1 stitched in maroon and has the No. 7 sketched in eye black facing in toward his nose under each eye.
He knows he can rely on his skills. He knows he can rely on his teammates. And he knows he can rely on the preparation of his coaches. Above all, he knows he can rely on his durability.
Manny had never suffered a serious injury in his entire athletic career and had never been kept off the lacrosse field for more than a week. He was always a fixture on the top UMass attack unit, even in the fall.
But that all changed on Feb. 10.
The Minutemen opened their season that day at Garber against Army. All seemed to be going well until Manny came off the field after taking a check from a Black Knights defenseman. A sensation raced through his entire arm and when he took his glove off on the sidelines, his thumb looked like the letter “S.”
“I said to (trainer) Bob (Kuzmeski), ‘Bob I think my finger’s broken,’” Manny said. “So we looked at it and it got so swollen that we couldn’t really see much going on.”
Manny, being the competitor that he is, got his hand taped up and returned to the field. He went on to score a goal and UMass came away with the 16-9 win.
“It’s weird because you use your thumb for a lot, but luckily I was able to tape it up and get through it,” Manny said. “It was the first home game of the season my senior year, so there was no way I was not gonna play.”
Manny got checked out by the training staff after the game, and his thumb was so swollen that they originally thought it was an internal bruise. But when he got an x-ray on it the next morning, the truth became clear — his thumb was broken.
“The doctor was like ‘Wow, you’re thumb’s pretty broken,’” Manny said. “I knew right away it was more than just a stinger on my hand because it went up my whole entire arm. But right away I knew something was different than just getting a regular check.”
Although he couldn’t play, Manny knew he could rely on his teammates to pick up the slack while he was out. And over the next two games that’s exactly what they did, earning wins over then-No. 4 North Carolina and Harvard and moving up to No. 5 in the rankings.
He may have been watching from the sidelines, but he was all smiles as his team improved to 3-0.
“I was the happiest person you’ll see against North Carolina and Harvard because it was back-to-back wins without me playing,” Manny said.
But that elation quickly disappeared as Manny was forced to watch his team stumble through its first three-game losing streak since 2008, when he was just a junior in high school.
Manny watched, questioned and became frustrated as the offense that he led with 77 points last season was held to single-digits in all three losses.
He was confused, he was angry and for the first time in his career, he was helpless.
“I think the thing that made me want to play the most was a couple plays where we could’ve finished the ball or made a play where I see myself in that situation all the time and could’ve made a bit of a difference in the game,” Manny said. “I don’t know what the team lost or where we shifted away from, but, especially on offense because that’s my side of the ball and where I’m supposed to lead, we just needed to finish the ball.”
Making his return
After missing five games, Manny finally got the news he had been waiting for: he was cleared to play.
He spent the entire week of practice smiling. But the intensity of practice limited him, and he was constantly thinking about his thumb. But as the week went on he started to gain confidence. He did some extra shooting on his own and played wall-ball to shake off the rust.
On game day he was anxious, excitedly waving his hands to fire up the crowd at Garber Field prior to faceoff.
“There was nothing better than coming back and playing on Garber,” Manny said. “That week building up, I think the team was really excited to see me back.”
However, that excitement was short lived, as the Minutemen suffered their fourth-straight letdown in their CAA opener against Penn State. Manny had two assists in the loss.
Role of a leader
While Manny has played well since his return – he scored his 100th career goal in Saturday’s 9-5 loss to Towson – UMass’ struggles have continued and Manny’s career could very well end without one last shot at the NCAA tournament.
But if any one player on the Minutemen can be relied on to step up and rally his team, it will be Manny.
“I think he’s a leader by example in his attack group and a guy that tries to get his teammates fired up,” UMass coach Greg Cannella said.
And with only three games remaining and their backs against the wall, Manny has plenty to say to his teammates.
“We have team meetings during the week and that’s all I’ve been saying, ‘We need to play pissed off, play together and trust one another,’” Manny said. “It’s gonna happen sometime. We’ve gotten unlucky in plenty of games and that’s on our part. I’m waiting for it to happen, and we know when it happens, other teams are gonna collapse because we know what we can do when it happens and we’re gonna be excited about it.”
That sense of urgency is certainly there for everyone on the team, but the reality has especially dawned on UMass’ eight seniors. Every night when Manny goes back home with his roommates – fellow seniors Kyle Smith, Colin Fleming, Jake Smith, Brett Tobin and Bobby Tyler – they sit on the couch and say, “It’s one less day we have here.”
A different person
Like most college students, Manny sees himself as a different person than when he was a freshman. He went from a young player just hoping to get some playing time to a scoring machine. And now as a senior, he’s become what he’s wanted to be all along — a leader.
“You have to go do what you do to get wins for your team, get people to notice you’re a leader,” Manny said. “It just doesn’t come, you need to go do it, go get it. I think that’s the No. 1 thing that I learned here is you get what you work for, and I’m gonna use that for the rest of my life and it’s gonna help out.”
Cannella recalls recruiting Manny, and knowing that he would get overlooked for being an undersized player. But he also knew that it would drive him to be great. Cannella saw Manny as not only a great talent, but an even better team player.
“In high school we knew he was undersized,” Cannella said. “I’m not a particularly big guy myself, (and) for guys like that, they have sort of this inner desire to prove everybody wrong so when we recruited him we knew he had good talent and he was a really good team player as well, which attracted me probably more than his talent.”
Since his injury, Manny has been inspired to seize the day. Not only is he playing to keep his collegiate career alive, he’s not taking any moment out on the field for granted.
“I always say to guys during the week, especially the seniors, ‘You never know what’s gonna happen.’ You gotta practice every day like it’s your last, you really do,” Manny said. “Ever since I’ve been back, I’ve tried really hard to get the guys going and try to get us meshing a little bit better, try to get the ball moving a little bit.”
And as he moves forward in life, Manny hopes to carry the leadership skills he’s gained playing lacrosse with him into the real world.
“I’m already in that process with interviewing for jobs,” Manny said. “Every question I had asked to me I used previous job experience, and I’d relate it to lacrosse and everyone seems to love that. “You have the opportunity to be a part of a team, lead a team on and off the sports field, there’s nothing better than that. It’s gonna help me in everything and anything I do, and I know it’s gonna work out in a positive manner.”
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.