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UMass men’s lacrosse embraces underdog role entering 2014

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

It’s been a while since the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team has been an afterthought in the Colonial Athletic Conference and the NCAA.

But coming off their first losing season since 2008, the Minutemen enter 2014 unranked in the NCAA national rankings, and predicted to finished fourth in the CAA preseason coaches poll.

The departures of Kyle Smith and Will Manny, the team’s top two scorers from a season ago, don’t help the cause either.

“This is the first time in a long time we’re going to be the underdog in almost every game we play,” said UMass coach Greg Cannella, who is returning for his 20th season in Amherst. “But sometimes the underdog role is a good place to be in.”

In fact, the underdog role is something the Minutemen embrace. And with their sights set on bouncing back from a disappointing season, preseason polls are the least of their concerns.

“We don’t really care where the media puts us,” face-off specialist and midfielder Joe Calvello said. “All that matters is what we do on the field. Whether it’s in practice or in games, what’s going to matter is how we play this season.”

Calvello is one of three Minutemen selected to the preseason all-conference team. Although the midfielder only accounted for three points all of last season, it was his impressive 58 percent success rate in face-offs that has opened eyes around the conference.

Also returning back for UMass are attackmen Grant Whiteway and Connor Mooney. Both players reached the 20-goal mark last season – Whiteway netted 26 goals and six assists, while Mooney scored 22 to go along with his seven assists.

Mooney and redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Zach Oliveri joined Calvello on the CAA preseason all-conference team. Oliveri recorded 157 saves last season, posting a .559 save percentage and allowing just 8.63 goals per game.

“Joe’s awesome in the face-off game; Connor’s an excellent player – he can really play anywhere for us, attack, midfield – he’s done a good job defensively as well,” Cannella said. “It’s Zach’s third year now, and you hope that with all his time and effort he continues to be more consistent.”

The Minutemen welcome in 15 freshmen this season. Grant Consoletti and Nick Mariano are two attackers that have caught the attention of both coaches and other players and are expected to play a big role in the offensive game. But with only five seniors and 26 underclassmen, the returning veterans know just how hard it is to make the jump to Division I lacrosse.

“We are a really tight knit group,” Mooney said. “We do a lot of stuff as a team and the younger guys have done an excellent job of buying into what the older guys have been preaching to them. We want everyone on the team to feel like they have their own role in our success.”

Returning back to the midfield are Ryan Izzo and Matt Whippen. After tearing his ACL earlier in his career, Izzo has emerged as one of the top short stick defensive midfielders in the CAA.

“(The upperclassmen) have done an excellent job of making sure everyone else is involved, making sure everyone’s together,” Cannella said. “When someone falls out you have to have someone right there to bring them back in and these guys have done an excellent job of that.”

At the beginning of each season the team sets goals about where they envision themselves in May. While the Minutemen always set the bar high for themselves, they are more interested in the work it’s going to take to get there.

“We are buying into our values, toughness and a blue collar mentality,” Calvello said. “If you buy into those you are going to be successful. We are going to find success at the end of the year but more importantly it’s about the process and what we do to get there.”

UMass opens up its season Feb. 9 at Army.

Andrew Cyr can be reached at arcyr@umass.edu, and can be followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.

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