UMass dominates St. John’s to claim top spot in ECAC

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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With Doc Schneider and Diogo Godoi anchoring one of the nation’s best defenses, the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team didn’t need Tim Balise to run wild over St. John’s again.

But he did it anyway for good measure.

The senior attack scored four goals against the Red Storm ‘- he tallied six in last year’s meeting ‘- as the No. 13 Minutemen dominated the first half en route to a 12-6 victory over St. John’s at Garber Field Saturday afternoon.

With Balise, Jim Connolly (three goals) and a stifling defensive effort, UMass (6-3, 3-0 ECAC) entered halftime with an 8-1 lead and cruised to victory to extend its winning streak to three games and overtake sole possession of first place in the ECAC.

‘To be the team we want to be in May, we talked about how we have to go on runs and be able to string a couple of games together,’ said Schneider, who made nine saves in the victory. ‘And to do that in the ECAC is a very tough thing.’

UMass remains the only undefeated team in the conference. Loyola (6-4, 3-1 ECAC) and Fairfield (6-3, 3-1 ECAC) pose as the biggest threats to UMass for the conference’s automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament. But the Minutemen have a tie-breaker advantage over Loyola, having defeated the Greyhounds, 8-6, on March 21. UMass plays at Fairfield on April 21.

But with the way UMass has been playing, both teams may be hard-pressed to make up ground in the standings. No team has been able to shut down Connolly (25 goals) or Balise (18) this season, while Schneider, Godoi and Brennan Mack have consistently stymied opposing offenses.

SJU’s starting attack of Drew Schanen, Bobby Fitton and Harry Kutner, who entered the game with a combined 31 goals and 12 assists, didn’t register a single point.

‘It has a lot to do with preparation during the week in practice. Those guys defend Balise and Connolly and [Art] Kell each and every day,’ said UMass coach Greg Cannella on what’s enabled his defense to be so dominant. ‘[The offense] is a formidable group, so they’re preparing [the defenders] for battles each and every week.’

That competition in practice has allowed both sides to excel. The Minutemen lead the conference in goals per game (10.67) and rank second in goals-against average (7.45).

St. John’s (5-4, 1-3 ECAC) saw UMass’ balance first-hand Saturday ‘- particularly in the first half. Before the Red Storm got anything going, Balise needed just 15 minutes, 13 seconds to record a hat trick to give the Minutemen a 5-0 lead. Schneider didn’t even have to make a save in the first quarter, as UMass dominated possession and kept SJU away from the net.

‘Xs and Os wise, they were very prepared for our big-little offense. [Godoi and Mack] are just tremendous physical presences,’ said St. John’s coach Jason Miller, who was Cannella’s assistant at UMass from 2003-06. ‘Offensively we just weren’t good early. We didn’t handle the ball well. And when we dodged, we didn’t dodge to score and we started to fling the ball all over the place.’

Starting in the third quarter, it was UMass that looked poor offensively. They turned it over consistently (eight times), took only four shots (19 in the first half) and didn’t play with any sense of urgency.

‘We talk about playing a 60-minute game. You’re never going to play a perfect 60 minute game, but you go for that perfection,’ Schneider said. ‘If you come close to it, you’re doing alright. We gotta keep playing all four quarters.’

Cannella was pleased with the performance, but wanted to see a more consistent effort.

‘It was a good effort all-around, but we’d like to have a better effort and focus in the third quarter and I think our guys know that. You go up 8-1, but you can’t expect to win 16-2 against St. John’s – they’re a really good team,’ Cannella said. ‘You have to be happy with the win and the effort; you just hope at those times, when the choppiness occurs, the leaders on the field step up and settle things down.’

Despite the third-quarter struggles, UMass maintained its seven-goal lead ‘- as both teams scored once in the period. The Minutemen responded well in the final quarter, scoring the first three goals to extend the lead to 12-2.

After backup goalkeeper Mael Walkowiak was inserted into the game for the final 5:30, the Red Storm scored four goals in a span of three-and-a-half minutes to reach a final score of 12-6.

St. John’s was happy to see someone other than Schneider, who allowed a career-low two goals, in the cage.

‘You try to find a flaw when your watching film and you think he’s going to flop on the ground so you can beat him up-high, but you can’t,’ Miller said. ‘Then he’s jumping up high to stop the high ones, then you can beat him down low ‘- and you can’t. He’s a good as we’ll see all year and one of the best in the country.’

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]