By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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After two seasons of struggles, the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team aims to look more like the 2006 squad that reached the national championship game than the team that went a combined 12-16 over the past two years.

The Minutemen get their chance to start in the right direction Saturday afternoon in the 2009 season opener against Sacred Heart at Garber Field.

UMass, which finished last season at 5-9 (3-4 Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference), appears primed to return closer to the level of play they exhibited in 2006 during their historic run at the NCAA title game. With a lot of starters returning ‘- including honorable mention All-American goalkeeper Doc Schneider ‘- coupled with the re-instatement of offensive star Jim Connolly, the Minutemen looked solid in exhibition play as they head into the regular season.

‘[The exhibition against Army] was a great test, they are a very good team,’ UMass coach Greg Cannella said after the Saturday’s final exhibition for the Minutemen.

‘They tested our mental toughness defensively and also the opportunity to be in a tight game and sort of persevere and come back was good for our team.’

But Cannella was far from satisfied following the 13-11 victory over the Black Knights, mentioning his team’s struggles getting groundballs, clearing the ball on defense, throwing the ball away on offense and getting into an offensive flow.

Cannella was optimistic that a full week of practice could help out with some of the sloppiness, but he thinks it’s something that will be there all season long that they’ll just have to try to minimize.

A main focus for Cannella over the next few weeks will be to get his lineup more solidified.

‘I think we know where we’re going defensively, but I’m not sure we know where we’re going on the attack side yet,’ Cannella said. ‘There are some guys that are going to continue to battle it out and maybe over the first few games as well.’

Sacred Heart finished last season at 7-5, including a 9-7 victory over UMass on March 18 in Fairfield, Conn. For the Pioneers, it was their first-ever win over the Minutemen in six career meetings dating back to the 2003 season. In fact, Sacred Heart entered that meeting having lost every matchup by at least five goals.

Seven different players scored for Sacred Heart that afternoon, while UMass freshman Peter McNichols ‘- who is academically ineligible this season ‘- had a hat trick for the Minutemen in the loss. UMass dominated the 2007 meeting with the Pioneers, winning 11-4 behind three goals from Tim Balise and one goal and two assists from Connolly.

The Pioneers will be without graduated goalkeeper Ricardo Vargas, who made 13 saves in last year’s victory over the Minutemen. Zach Frank, who played in four games last season (two starts) for Sacred Heart, will likely be the starter on Saturday. He went 2-1 with a solid .614 save percentage in limited action last season as a freshman.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]