Heated rivals: Syracuse-UMass set for 36th meeting

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Just because the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team tries to emulate Syracuse‘s program, doesn’t mean they have to like them.

In fact, nothing about the UMass-Syracuse rivalry reminds anyone of a term of endearment. And that’s partly what makes this annual matchup so much fun.‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘

The recent overtime and NCAA classics. The Minutemen ruining some of the most impressive streaks in lacrosse history. The two teams rubbing victories in each others’ faces. The trash-talk. The rabid fans. The emotion.

All good reasons to watch on Saturday when No. 16 UMass and defending national champions ‘- and second-ranked ‘- Syracuse square off at McGuirk Stadium for the 36th installment of one of the best rivalries in all of lacrosse.

UMass coach Greg Cannella is certainly aware of the attention that this game brings, including the intensity and genuine disdain between the two teams.

‘In any sport, if you’re going to beat the best, you have to be at your best. And in lacrosse, as in any other competitive sport, you can’t be nice,’ he said. ‘Syracuse is never nice to us when they beat the crap out of us and we weren’t nice to them when we won our games.

‘That’s the way sports are and I think that [the dislike between the teams] and the things that were said [between the players and from the crowd] out on the field is blown out of proportion by certain media outlets. I don’t agree with any of that stuff, but that’s just part of sports.’

How well his players control their emotions and set aside some of the outside hoopla surrounding the game will be a major factor come Saturday afternoon in Cannella’s mind. A victory would almost assuredly give UMass (8-4, 5-1 ECAC) an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, and a loss wouldn’t affect the Minutemen’s chances in the ECAC. Either a loss by Loyola to Hobart on Saturday or a win for UMass over Rutgers on May 2 would clinch the conference championship and a spot in the NCAAs for the Minutemen.

But for now, Cannella’s crew has plenty of other things to focus on. Not only are they playing the defending national champions, but the Minutemen will have to adjust to playing at McGuirk for the first time since a 1997 loss to ‘hellip; Syracuse.

‘The [field turf] surface is different [than the artificial turf at Garber Field] and it’s a bigger venue, but you still play on a 110×60 field. The dimensions are no different,’ Cannella said of the adjustments of playing at McGuirk.

Despite the unfamiliarity for UMass at McGuirk (which is a football stadium), it will provide a huge boost in attendance. The crowd is expected to surpass 10,000 fans, which is nine-times more than what they average at Garber Field (1,132).

‘Controlling our emotions is key,’ Cannella said. ‘How do you handle yourself with a ton of fans: do you get too excited? Do you not? You still have to execute regardless if its 15,000 or 500. And hopefully we can handle that.’

And there’s something else out of its control that could play a factor: UMass has played two games (Tuesday’s win over Fairfield and Saturday’s loss to Georgetown) in the last six days while Syracuse (10-2) hasn’t played since April 17. Cannella doesn’t think that will play much of a factor, but ‘we need to get some rest and get our legs back.’

But more importantly UMass will have to try to contain ‘- ‘you can’t shut them down, you have to limit certain people out on the field’ ‘- easily one of the most talented and balanced teams in the country.

Whether it’s Kenny Nims (22 goals, 28 assists), Stephen Keogh (37 G, 6 A) or Chris Daniello (17 G) at attack or Dan Hardy (18 G, 14 A), Pat Perritt (11 G, 11 A) or Matt Abbott at midfield ‘- the stellar UMass defense certainly has a lot to worry about.

‘They have at least one guy at every position that can dominate a game,’ Cannella said.

That includes defensive midfielder Joel White (‘who is as good at the pole than anyone you’ll see’), Jovan Miller at short-stick defensive midfield (‘as good an athlete as you’ll see’) and Sid Smith and goalkeeper John Galloway (8.37 goals-against average, .535 save percentage) on defense.

It’s a challenge that the Minutemen relish.

‘There is this edge that you feel that you need to prove something against a bunch of guys who are more highly-recruited than UMass guys in general,’ senior Rory Pedrick said. ‘It give
s you a chip on your shoulder to prove that you’re just as good and you belong out there [against them].

Led by arguably the premier goalkeeper in the country in Doc Schneider, the Minutemen have the personnel on defense (comparable to Virginia or Princeton ‘- the only two teams to beat the Orange this season) to help counter Syracuse‘s firepower.

Schneider, who ranks in the Top 5 in the country in both goals-against average (6.86) and save percentage (.661), is one of just two goalies in the country to be a finalist for the Tewaarton Trophy ‘- the ‘Heisman Trophy’ of college lacrosse.

Defensive stars Diogo Godoi and Brennan Mack, along with Schneider, Travis Tripucka and a host of other defenders will have to try to limit the penalties. The Minutemen have committed an average of 3.9 penalties per game ‘- something that Syracuse will make them pay for.

Syracuse is an incredible 19-for-39 on the man-advantage this season. But UMass has been up for the challenge when on the man-down, successfully killing 36-of-45 (.800) of its penalties.

‘We’ll be better if we don’t foul. They have guys who can shoot the lights out of the ball. Whether it’s from 10 yards [out] or 20 yards, they’ll still burn you,’ Cannella said.

UMass has some dynamic goal-scorers of its own. Jim Connolly (30 goals) and Tim Balise (25) rank as one of the best-scoring duos in the nation and recently the Minutemen have seen increased production from its midfielders, including Bobby Hayes (10), Evan Blum (13) and Rory Pedrick (11).

Much like the Orange, the Minutemen have their fair share of play-makers from all over the field. That similarity is no accident.

‘Since I’ve been here, we try to model ourselves after Syracuse. I think if you’re a program you’d be a fool not to try to model yourself after their program because it’s so successful,’ Cannella said. ‘And the way that they play is a fun way to play and enjoyable way to play for your athletes, because they allow their athletes to excel and show the coaches what they can do.

‘And it helps in recruiting and the people who watch your games because they’re excited about it.’

Just don’t expect the excited fans ‘- or the players ‘- to be nice to each other.

Notes

Syracuse won last year’s meeting, 16-3, at the Carrier Dome. ‘hellip; UMass’ NCAA victory over Syracuse in 2005 ended Syracuse‘s run of making the Final Four at 22 straight years. ‘hellip; UMass’ victory in 2007 ended Syracuse‘s streak of making 24 straight NCAA Tournaments and 31 straight seasons of at least a .500 record.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]