Massachusetts Daily Collegian

COMMENTARY | Cannella a special leader for UMass

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Wielding a big, heavy and shiny trophy in his right arm and assorted belongings in his left, Greg Cannella couldn’t shake the hands of all the well-wishers after the game.

Good problem to have.

The 15-year coach of the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team was carrying the 2009 ECAC Championship trophy that his team won, earned and deserved just 20 minutes earlier and 15 months following an incident that rocked the team and resulted in eight players getting dismissed from the squad.

Winning the conference championship was a moment of redemption for two of those players: Jim Connolly and Ryan Marcus, who were the only ones of the eight that were reinstated for the 2009 season. And it was clearly a special moment for Cannella, who is UMass’ leader, a man of class and a coach that embodies how a successful college program should be run.

‘I just can’t say enough about the leadership, the seniors, the captains and some of the younger guys that have stepped up to be leaders,’ said an emotional Cannella after the game. ‘In that sense, we turned around the culture of the team from last year from the incident. And to me, that is the most important [thing], obviously.’

Credit that to Cannella. Just ask former UMass star Sean Morris (2003-2006), and he’ll tell you.

‘Because of his ability to work within the University and what he stands for, they have a great coach and somebody that not only is out to coach a kid in lacrosse, but also help coach them in life,’ Morris said.

‘It’s that family atmosphere that is the UMass lacrosse program. For him to have the program go so low and have this black eye, and to now persevere in a way that making that tournament was such a big, big statement,’ he added. ‘And that comes back to coach Cannella.’

When Tim Balise scored the game-winning goal in overtime against Rutgers to give the Minutemen the ECAC crown and automatic qualifier into the NCAA Tournament, all the players converged onto the field in a massive celebration. When the trophy was presented after the hysteria, a still-energized UMass team posed for a photo with the hardware, while Cannella and his assistant coaches looked on.

Maybe Cannella wanted his team to have a moment of their own. But he belonged in that picture. He is that team; he is UMass men’s lacrosse. You won’t find anyone that would argue that.

‘We hugged each other, we started crying ‘- best feeling I’ve had in a while. He loves it just as much. He’s not above it, he always shows his emotions like us,’ said star goalkeeper Doc Schneider. ‘He’s great and you want to win for him when it comes down to it. He’s the absolute trademark of what a coach should be.’

It was also a meaningful moment for Connolly, who endears the man that gave him another chance to play at the school that he loves.

‘Coach Cannella is a great guy. He cares a lot about this team and a lot about this program,’ Connolly said. ‘He’s also an emotional guy and when big events like this happen, you can’t blame him when he shows his emotions.’

Led by Cannella’s spectacular group of seniors, it seemed as if that big event was inevitable all season. After an inconsistent beginning to the year, with impressive victories followed by close losses, the Minutemen won their first four ECAC games to jump out in front of a very talented conference.

But after a disappointing home loss to Georgetown on April 18, UMass suddenly found itself behind Loyola ‘- a team it beat on the road three weeks earlier ‘- in the conference standings with just two ECAC games remaining.

Led by Connolly, Balise, Schneider and the steady leadership of Cannella, the Minutemen never wavered. Not after the loss to the Hoyas and not after rival Syracuse knocked their teeth just days after a key road win over Fairfield.

So when his team entered overtime against Rutgers on Saturday afternoon with the entire season on the line, Cannella was confident his team would gut out the victory.

Much of what they worked so hard for would have ended had Rutgers scored that goal: the ECAC crown, the NCAA Tournament berth.

But UMass doesn’t have to worry about that scenario. When Balise scored that goal and his team went crazy, it was hard for Cannella not to get emotional.

‘I saw it go in and before I turned around, the whole bench was past me. It’s fantastic [to see]. These guys work so hard,’ said Cannella, fighting back tears.

As Cannella walked towards the bus with so much in hand, he passed the trophy to someone else because he couldn’t hold it anymore.

He’s carried the program for so long, forgive him if his arms needed the rest.

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

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