Postseason fate on the line for UMass vs. Rutgers

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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If the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team isn’t watching television together on Sunday night, something has gone terribly wrong.

That would mean the highly-favored Minutemen failed to beat Rutgers Saturday afternoon ‘- costing them the ECAC championship, the automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament and likely any chance of backing their way into the NCAAs.

It would mean the team that has been atop the conference standings virtually all season long and was once ranked No. 12 in the nation would likely not hear ‘UMass’ announced as an NCAA Tournament team during Sunday’s NCAA Selection Show.

If the No. 15 Minutemen beat a struggling Rutgers team in Piscataway, N.J., on Saturday, they won’t have to hope for an unlikely at-large bid into the NCAAs or worry about any of that. A win and they’re in for the first time since their run to the national championship game in 2006.

UMass coach Greg Cannella knows that a team playing with nothing to lose against a team that has plenty to gain is a scary matchup to see in a virtual must-win game.

‘It’s very dangerous. And if you watch the tape, you can see just how talented they are,’ Cannella said of Rutgers. ‘It’s Senior Day, they’re at home, last game of the year ‘- we got to be ready to play.

‘And they’ve beaten us the last two years with the same guys.’

But the Minutemen (8-5, 5-1 ECAC), who need a win to claim the ECAC title over Loyola, are a much different team now than they were in the 2008 and 2007 losses to the Scarlet Knights. Powered by an All-American candidate at goalkeeper in Doc Schneider and dynamic offensive threats in Jim Connolly and Tim Balise, UMass has more weapons than Rutgers, which has lost four straight games to fall to 4-10 overall and 2-4 in the ECAC.

UMass struggled in its most recent game, too, but that came against the defending national champions and current top-ranked team in the country ‘- Syracuse. The Minuteman offense couldn’t get anything going in front of a record home crowd of 13,722, falling to the Orange, 10-3, at McGuirk Stadium.

‘We want to share the ball, we want to create assists ‘- it just seems like in the past five to six games we haven’t done that,’ Cannella said. ‘When you have guys like Jim and Tim, and when they handle the ball, everybody tends to watch. So you got to get guys to move the ball a little bit more and also to get everyone else involved.’

Cannella believes that a certain good always come from a loss, and that his team can apply what they’ve learned from it heading into Saturday’s make-or-break meeting with Rutgers.

‘John Wooden used to say, ‘When you know it all, know everything, what counts is what you learn after you know everything’,’ said Cannella, following a credence of the legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach. ‘And I think when you win games, people tend to not look at the bad and look at the good.

‘I think you have the guys focused when you do lose, because they know they have to improve.’

UMass will have to do exactly that, especially against the Scarlet Knights, which always try to out-work, out-scrap and out-hustle their opponents in every way they can. Junior midfielder Justin Pennington leads that charge for Rutgers, dominating on face-offs and scooping up seemingly every ground ball to ignite the offense.

Everything runs through him. He helps them win possession on the face-offs, helps them get them back with ground balls and helps then finish with a team-high 29 points on 15 goals and 14 assists. Limiting his impact will be a major focus for the Minutemen.

‘Justin Pennington is an outstanding player and he has the ability to win every face-off and score every goal for them,’ Cannella said. ‘It’s going to be our job to try to win a few.

‘Out-scrapping them is very important to this game. I’ve been telling our guys we’re going to have to fight for everything in this game. Nobody is going to hand it to you ‘- you’re going to have to go and get it.’

Along with Pennington, Kory Kelly will try to take the ECAC title away from UMass. The sophomore attack easily leads the team in goals this season with 25. He gave the Minutemen fits last season, scoring the final three goals to lift the Rutgers to a 7-6 victory in Amherst.

How well the defense and Schneider, who leads the NCAA in save percentage (65.8), limits Kelly and Pennington on Sat
urday, could dictate how much TV the Minutemen watch on Sunday.

Notes

UMass leads the all-time series 17-10, with a 7-6 record in New Brunswick ‘hellip; Rutgers, however, has won each of the last two meetings ‘- both by one goal ‘hellip; Last year’s win for Rutgers over UMass on the last day of the regular season vaulted them past UMass for third in the ECAC standings.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]