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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Pair of UMass seniors set to increase leadership after Koch’s passing

UMass seniors Matt Keys right) and Josh Schwartz left) will step up their leadership roles this year following the passing of coach Sam Koch (Nicole Evangelista/Daily Collegian)

UMass seniors Matt Keys right) and Josh Schwartz left) will step up their leadership roles this year following the passing of coach Sam Koch (Nicole Evangelista/Daily Collegian)


When Massachusetts men’s soccer coach Sam Koch passed away this July after a long battle with cancer, the Minutemen lost their head coach of 23 years, who guided them to 222 wins, four Atlantic 10 regular season titles, and three NCAA tournament appearances.

Talk to anyone within the UMass soccer program, though, and the last things you’ll hear about are Koch’s accomplishments on the field.

“He was a coach, a friend, a father figure, a leader, and someone I looked up to,” said forward Josh Schwartz, who played his first three seasons with the Minutemen under Koch. “He was a big part in me coming here. When I came out for my official visit, coach just stood out to me as a really great guy and a great person, someone that I wanted to play for.”

“We were really close. I kind of saw him as a friend and a father figure,” defender Matt Keys said. “He was an easy guy to get along with and an easy guy to talk to.”

Interim head coach Devin O’Neill, who has over 20 years of experience coaching college soccer (the past two as an assistant with UMass) will help pick up the slack in terms of leadership responsibilities for the Minutemen. Naturally, though, some of that responsibility will fall on the team’s veteran players.

“When you’re coming up, you’re always looking up to the older guys, it’s just something that’s natural,” Schwartz said.

In terms of “older guys,” UMass will be leaning on two senior leaders in Keys and Schwartz.

Keys, a 6-4 defender/forward from Norfolk, Massachusetts, has started every game for the Minutemen since arriving in Amherst in 2011. Already named team captain for the upcoming season, Keys is a vocal leader, someone other players look to regularly.

“I’m used to playing that role on the team,” said Keys, who served as co-captain last year. “It’s something I feel very comfortable with.”

Schwartz had high praise for Key’s leadership abilities.

“I really see Matt as the true leader of the team,” Schwartz said. “He’s been that for a couple years, been a captain for a couple years.”

“When it comes to leadership, I just follow suit with him.”

It only takes one game to see that Keys is the heart and soul of the UMass defense. The tallest player on the team, Keys is also the loudest and is the center of communication on the field. He doesn’t shy away from that role, and said that he welcomes it.

“There are definitely times as a player/captain that I’m going to have to step up and really be a leader for those guys.” Keys said.

Schwartz, on the other hand, spearheads the Minutemen’s offense and led the team in points each of the past two seasons. In contrast to Keys, Schwartz brings a quieter brand of leadership to the Minutemen but also talked about being a veteran leader on the team.

“I just have to accept that role and lead by example,” Schwartz said. “You know, working hard, playing hard, doing everything right on and off the field. It’s something that I hope I can instill in the younger group as they continue to grow here.”

Watching Schwartz play, it’s easy to see how he sets the example for the rest of the team. Always one of the smaller players on the field, he is sometimes hard to see amongst hordes of towering defenders fighting for the ball, but more often than not, he emerges with possession.

You couldn’t pick two players more suited to represent UMass soccer. Koch might be gone, but the senior class he left behind will ensure that many of his best attributes live on in the program.

“We’re still going to play with all the qualities that Coach Koch wanted,” Schwartz said. “With passion, positivity, dedication, and hard work.”

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at rgieniec@umass.edu and followed on twitter @RossGien

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