Commentary: Despite losing effort, program headed in right direction

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

Prior to being named the head coach at the University of Massachusetts in 2007, Alexis Venechanos helped lead the Wildcats to national championships in both 2005 and 2006 as an assistant coach.

Northwestern has moved on just fine since her departure. Since then, the No. 1 Wildcats have won two more consecutive titles en route to a 93-3 record over the past four-plus years.

Expecting the third-year UMass coach to replicate that type of success in Amherst is unfair and unrealistic. But the Minutewomen, who fell to the Wildcats, 22-5, on Wednesday night, are making positive strides even though their 3-6 record may not show it.

A 22-5 loss may have you thinking otherwise. But it’s not wise to argue with Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller ‘- who seems to know a thing or two about running a successful women’s lacrosse program.

‘I think that Alexis has made some great steps with this team,’ she said. ‘They have some great athletes, she’s doing a great job recruiting and I think it should be exciting for them to start their conference play this weekend.’

UMass has lost two-thirds of its nine games this season, but part of that was by-design. Venechanos had her team playing one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country, something that the Minutewomen will really learn from and use to their benefit when Atlantic 10 play begins on Friday against La Salle.

‘Our girls got to see the best competition. We’re not going to face a team in the next month or so anywhere near Northwestern,’ Venechanos said after the game. ‘We’re coming out of this game with some positives: in the second half we finished some of our shots and got possession of the ball. We’re going to learn from this and bring intensity on Friday.’

Those are the only types of battles that teams playing Northwestern seem to win. The Wildcats are 10-0 and looked primed for a 5-peat, outscoring their opponents 199-58 so far this season.

UMass senior attack Meghan Reddy, who scored a hat trick in the loss, was upbeat along with her teammates following the game, knowing that this game will help them moving forward.

‘It was a great experience ‘- this really helps us heading into conference play,’ she said. ‘After playing the best team in the nation, you’re only going to get better heading into the conference games.’

Northwestern was just one of five ranked teams that UMass played to help prepare for conference play. The Minutewomen lost four of those games, but gave strong efforts in a 13-10 win over then- No. 13 Dartmouth on March 4 and a 13-10 loss to then- No. 13 New Hampshire two weeks later.

This is the exact same blueprint Venechanos used in 2008 to improve the program ‘- a season that resulted in UMass’ first A-10 championship game appearance since 2003. They also lost four games to ranked teams last year, but that enabled them to beat No. 1 seeded Richmond in a 10-9 overtime thriller to advance to the title game.

However, this year’s team is much different than last season’s. Gone is Kathleen Typadis, possibly the best player in school history, as well as leader Melynda Zwick and last year’s leading-scorer Kaytlin McCormick. In fact, their five leading scorers from 2008 are all gone, and the 2009 team has 14 newcomers.

But like Amonte Hiller said, they are young and talented and only going to get better. And what gets UMass the most excited is freshman goalkeeper Katie Florence. Because they know a good stopper in net can keep them in the game against virtually any team in the country.

‘Katie is amazing. We play very confidently because we know she can stop anything,’ senior Holly Drown said of Florence on Tuesday before practice. ‘She kills us at practice every day when we shoot on her. It’s so frustrating.’

Florence has played all but one minute in goal all season. She showed how special she can become in a recent three-game span with an 18-save effort in a 13-12 win over Harvard, 17 stops in the upset win over UNH and a solid performance in a 7-4 loss to Yale.

The Minutewomen have a strong young nucleus on offense with sophomores Jackie Lyons (17 goals, seven assists) and Haley Smith (13 goals) and freshmen midfielders Danielle Pelletier, Dayna DeFliese and Alli Houtis. The talent is there on defense, too, with sophomore Nazy Kerr and freshman Riley Perry.

In total, UMass has 20 underclassmen on the roster. Don’t expect the freshman class to have four national championships when they graduate, but Venechanos has this team and program headed in the right direction.

She’s got the best coach in the country in her corner.

‘She’s a great coach and brings a lot of energy to the game. She’s a smart and dynamic coach and a true competitor,’ Amonte Hiller said. ‘I just think she needs to get the girls to believe in her and her system. I think that’s the key.’

Eli Rosenswaike is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]