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December 11, 2017

UMass men’s soccer season starts slow, ends on a high despite early tournament exit

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

Throughout the course of the 2015 season, the mantra around the Massachusetts men’s soccer team was simple: Get better every day.

And after a slow start to the season in which the Minutemen (5-13-1, 4-3-1 Atlantic 10) lost their first six games of the year, they got better.

Once conference play rolled around, UMass kicked it into another gear, finishing tied for fourth place and earning the fifth seed in the conference tournament after posing a 4-3-1 record in the A-10.

Despite a first-round exit to Fordham in the postseason, head coach Fran O’Leary praised his group for the belief they showed throughout the season, even when results weren’t going their way.

“I’m very proud of the group of guys, they’ve been terrific from the outset,” O’Leary, who wrapped up his first year in charge of the Minutemen, said after the season. “Results didn’t go our way early, a lot of teams would fracture and become little cliques, but this group didn’t, they grew stronger.

“Thankfully they got some reward in the end. To be picked 12th and finish tied for fourth and get a fifth seed is reward for their hard work.”

When O’Leary took the reigns of the program it was definitely a rebuilding job, having lost key seniors Matt Keys and Josh Schwartz to graduation, in addition to Luke Pavone’s transfer to be closer to home in New York.

On a roster filled with 18 underclassmen, O’Leary recognized the leadership that was displayed by the upperclassmen, particularly the senior class. He credited the seniors with keeping the youthful squad optimistic even during rough patches.

“The key thing for us coming out of this season was that we’d feel optimistic about the future of the program, we feel that we’re trending in the right direction,” O’Leary said. “They worked very hard to keep everyone’s spirits up during the tough times. You have to remember the senior class experienced a much tougher time when they lost a beloved coach. So if any group was equipped to do it, it was this group.”

A key aspect of the team that seemed to round into shape as the year went on for O’Leary was his defense. Despite putting out a back four that consisted of no seniors, UMass built a solid defensive core, led by junior Josh Jess and freshman Brandon Merklin.

“We didn’t really know what we’d get together,” O’Leary said. “It was a learning experience for the coaching staff as much as it was for the guys, but a lot of these guys had standout years.”

O’Leary added: “We got very solid goalkeeping and if you look at the back four, Matt (Pease) was a fine player for us but we lost him halfway through the season through injury, and we lost Dylan (Cranmer), who was a freshman and doing very well.”

With this season in the books, the Minutemen will turn the page and say goodbye to five seniors, including captain Will Ellis (two goals) and forward Mark Morris (three goals). Even though they will no longer be on the team, O’Leary believes guys like Ellis and Morris “left a benchmark” for future years.

“They’ve all contributed on and off the field. We lose some fine players and we lose some terrific guys,” O’Leary said. “Some played a lot, some didn’t get to play as much and they carried themselves very well, and young guys look at that and they’ll model off of that.”

As for next year, O’Leary isn’t sure who will step up and assume the role of leader and captain of the team.

“Time will tell, we’ll see what the spring brings,” he said. “We’ve got to see how they handle the offseason between now and when we really crank it up again after Christmas. We want to make sure everyone’s working hard in the classroom, keeping themselves in shape.

“Leaders will emerge over the course of the next few months and that’s always exciting just to sit back and see what emerges.”

Jason Kates can be reached at jkates@umass.edu and followed @Jason_Kates.

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