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Kates: Defense will be key to success for UMass men’s lacrosse

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(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

When the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50, it wasn’t because quarterback Peyton Manning threw for 300 yards or six touchdowns.

It was because of Denver’s defense, led by premier pass rushers Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, who shut down Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and the rest of the Panthers’ offense.

The Broncos’ defense was a threat all year and Denver rode it all the way to the promised land, giving Manning his second Super Bowl ring in what many believe was his final game played.

Now, you’re probably asking yourself what this has to do with the 2016 Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team.

The answer is a simple one: If the Minutemen, who lost their season opener to Army 9-5 on Feb. 12, wish to find any success in this upcoming campaign, it will be because of their defense.

Led by senior Kyle Karaska, one of two UMass players to be selected for the preseason All-Colonial Athletic Association team, the Minutemen will depend on him and fellow seniors Kevin Porzelt and Bob Fahey to man the ship and give them a chance to win some games.

“We have our senior captains down there, so that’s huge for us. Kyle (Karaska), Bob (Fahey) and Kevin (Porzelt) have a ton of experience. All three of them are lock-down defenders,” senior midfielder Kurt Hunziker said Feb. 11.

It became much clearer this would be the case after former UMass attacker and top scoring threat Nick Mariano unexpectedly transferred over the summer to play for Syracuse, leaving a gaping hole offensively for coach Greg Cannella to replace.

In his sophomore year in 2015, Mariano led the team in points with 42, scoring 22 goals while recording 20 assists. The next highest point-scorers were Brendan Hegarty and Gianni Bianchin, who each finished with 28.

Combine Mariano’s departure with those of seniors Andrew Sokol (17 goals) and Grant Whiteway (15), and the Minutemen are now looking to replace 37 percent of its offensive production from those three alone.

UMass returns players like Hegarty and Bianchin to go along with Dan Muller (27 points in 2015) and Peter Lindley (26 points in his freshman year). But the absences of Mariano and goaltender Zach Oliveri (transferred to Stony Brook) further places the burden on a defensive corps that allowed an average of 10.73 goals per game last season and a total of 161 goals, both of which ranked in the cellar of the CAA.

A lot of this can be chalked up to UMass’ unbelievably difficult non-conference schedule, as it gave up an average of 14.8 goals in its first five games of 2015 – all losses – including a 20-8 defeat at the hands of then-No. 6 North Carolina.

In the season-opening loss against the Black Knights last Friday, Cannella acknowledged that the offense just wasn’t there.

“We just didn’t have enough scoring punch, it’s kind of been who we’ve been in the preseason,” he said. “You can’t score five goals and expect to win lacrosse games, you just can’t do it.”

Yes, you can’t score five goals and expect too many wins, but in defense of the Minutemen, losing your top scorer and offensive threat isn’t something that can be easily replaced and will take some time getting adjusted to.

But if the offense isn’t there, the defense needs to be.

If there was a bright spot out of the season-opening defeat, it was the play of sophomore goalkeeper Dan Dolan, who was credited with nine saves in the second half after replacing D.J. Smith in the cage.

With its upcoming home opener Saturday against No. 11 Ohio State, the UMass defense will be tasked with slowing down an offense that has scored 24 goals over its first two games.

If the Minutemen wish to pull off an upset and earn their first win of the season, it won’t be because they scored 16 goals.

It will be because of their defense.

Jason Kates can be reached at [email protected] and followed @JKates1216.

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