UMass one win away from ECAC Title, NCAA Berth

By Eli Rosenswaike, Collegian Staff

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Behind the usual suspects on offense and defense, the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team has enjoyed a resurgent season to put them within reach of an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time since 2006.

But on Tuesday afternoon, it was the forgotten midfield crew that came through ‘- leading UMass to a 12-6 victory over Fairfield in a key conference game that put the Minutemen one win away from claiming the ECAC title and an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.

The midfield group combined for seven goals, including three by senior Evan Blum for his first-career hat trick as the Minutemen scored seven unanswered goals in the second half to pull away from the Stags in Fairfield, Conn.

‘This was almost like a playoff game for us,’ said midfielder Bobby Hayes, who had two goals and two assists. ‘It was a big win all-around. I’m just excited for the midfield to finally step up and take some pressure off the attack.’

The victory also took some serious heat off the No. 16 Minutemen (8-4, 5-1 ECAC), who can lock up the league title and automatic NCAA qualifier with a win at Rutgers on May 2. A loss for Loyola at Hobart on April 25 would also suffice for UMass.

The Minutemen put themselves into that position with a win over the Stags (6-6, 3-3 ECAC) Tuesday. Leading just 5-4 after two early Fairfield goals in the third quarter, the midfielders ‘- along with goalkeeper Doc Schneider ‘- took over the game. Hayes, Blum and Rory Pedrick (two goals) guided UMass to seven straight goals over the next 22 minutes, 45 seconds while Schneider completely shut down the Stags.

Five different players scored during that decisive stretch to put the game well out of reach. That balance offensively was exactly what UMass had been missing as of late, especially in its 10-7 loss to Georgetown on Saturday.

‘As much as you need your attack to score goals, we’ve struggled to score goals at the midfield, and today we had seven midfield goals out of the 12, which is obviously what we needed,’ UMass coach Greg Cannella said. ‘Guys are keying on Tim [Balise] and Jim [Connolly] and Evan, Bobby Hayes and Rory Pedrick stepped up.’

But it’s not as if the midfielders did it alone. Connolly and Balise each scored two goals, giving them a combined 55 goals on the season. Connolly scored his 30th goal of the year in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 11-4 with 3:21 remaining.

Art Kell added another one 35 seconds later, capping the afternoon offensively for the Minutemen. Fairfield finally ended the UMass run and beat Schneider (14 saves) 13 seconds after Kell’s goal. The Stags scored the game’s final tally with 1:14 left off backup goalkeeper Mael Walkowiak.

It was a struggle offensively for UMass for much of the first half before it broke out in the third and fourth quarters. A number of turnovers and losses on the face-off made it difficult for the Minutemen to get into any offensive rhythm.

Hayes had a lot to do in solving that problem. With Joe Reale struggling mightily on the draw (3-for-14), Cannella inserted his junior midfielder to take the face-offs for the first time since his freshman season. It worked to perfection, with Hayes winning all four to spark the UMass offense.

‘He scored a couple of big goals in the first half for us to put us ahead and then took a couple of big face-offs and had a couple of assists in the third quarter for us,’ Cannella said. ‘It was great to see him do that.’

‘We needed a little momentum there,’ said Hayes. ‘Fairfield’s face-off guy [Steve Golmont] was excellent ‘- he was really controlling the momentum of the game. We couldn’t really get the ball after we scored.

‘I just told coach to let me try to take a face-off and it happened.’

Fairfield freshman goalkeeper Charlie Cipriano, who started out strong, had little chance once UMass dominated possession. He finished with six saves in the loss.
It was a strong performance from the Minutemen, especially considering the short lay-off from Saturday’s Georgetown game and the highly-anticipated meeting with defending national champion and second-ranked Syracuse on Saturday at McGuirk Stadium.

Game notes
UMass has won 29 of its last 30 games when scoring at least 10 goals. ‘hellip; The Minutemen scored 12 goals on just 24 shots. Fairfield took 40. ‘hellip; The Minutemen has lost the face-off battle (14-8) nine times in 12 games this season. But they have won eight of those nine games, with the lone loss coming to Georgetown. ‘hellip; UMass entered the game ranked 11th in RPI. ‘hellip; Both goals by Balise came on the man-up, where UMass finished 2-for-2. The Stags were 0-for-5.

Eli Rosenswaike can be reached at [email protected]