UMass looks for signature win against Northwestern

By Dan Gigliotti

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

Before the start of the 2011 women’s lacrosse season, first-year Massachusetts coach Angela McMahon’s goal was to elevate the Minutewomen from formidable Northeast foe to a national force.

Saturday night’s game against No. 2 Northwestern has the potential to do that as No. 12 UMass hosts the Wildcats at 7 p.m. in the second-ever night game at McGuirk Stadium.

UMass is off to its best start since 1983 when it began the season 7-1 en route to an appearance in the semifinal round of the NCAA Tournament. Yet, in order to thrust itself into consideration as one of the frontrunners of Division I women’s lacrosse, UMass will need to beat Northwestern, something it has accomplished once in the program’s history (1-9 vs. NU).

“It’s going to be great, it’s going to be a great test for us and I don’t know who I was saying this too, but it is basically like an NCAA Tournament game for us and that is how we are going to treat it because that is the type of competition we are going to see later on down the road, if we hopefully make the NCAA Tournament,” said McMahon.

As back-to-back A-10 champions and this season’s favorite to win the conference again, the Minutewomen have been successful in their conference schedule. They have the second-most all-time wins in conference play (50).

For the first time in over 12 seasons, the Minutewomen have waded through their non-conference schedule with near-perfect success, earning their highest national ranking since 1988.

UMass beat then-No. 18 Boston University 13-12 for the first time since 2007 with a last-second goal by freshman Katie Ferris on Feb. 23, but suffered its first defeat on Garber Field on Saturday to No. 15 Albany, 8-7.

While those are the only two nationally-ranked opponents that the Minutewomen have played thus far, Northwestern has played six of its eight games against the nation’s elite and won.

Saturday’s night’s game will be the Wildcats’ sixth against a team ranked No. 12 or higher. Their first five wins came on the road over No. 10 Notre Dame, No. 3 North Carolina, No. 11 Vanderbilt, Navy and No. 7 Georgetown. Last Saturday, they played in Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, Texas, beating No. 16 William & Mary 18-8.

With its most recent game, a 16-11 win over No. 11 Syracuse at home on Tuesday, Northwestern’s resume of quality wins trumps that of UMass. Still, win or lose, this game will act as a measuring stick for McMahon and the Minutewomen.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to see where we stand, but also be tested and hopefully play to our best,” said McMahon. “A lot of times you see teams playing up to opponents when they’re in the underdog role, so I’m excited to see that.”

The Minutewomen have lost five times to the Wildcats in the last four seasons by a combined score of 99-23.

After losing 18-4 on neutral ground in Yorktown, N.Y. in 2007 and getting routed 18-2 in 2008 on Northwestern’s home turf in Evanston, Ill., the Minutewomen hosted the Wildcats under the lights in 2009 in the first-ever night game at McGuirk stadium. Again, they lost handily, 22-5, before being downed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament later that season, 23-6.

Last season, the Minutewomen traveled to Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, Calif., losing its season opener 18-6 to then-No. 1 Northwestern, winners of five-straight national championships.

Ranked no lower than No. 2 in the national polls in each of the past four matchups, the Wildcats continue to boast the pinnacle every time they face UMass.

The schedule of this annual matchup began with former coach Alexis Venechanos, who was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Northwestern for three seasons before joining the Minutewomen staff in 2006. Northwestern assistant coach Scott Hiller, husband of head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, was also a four-time All-American for UMass men’s lacrosse and ranks sixth in the program’s history in points (190 points) and second in goals (135 goals).

In addition, McMahon and current UMass assistant coach Sarah Albrecht both graduated from Northwestern, further strengthening the ties between the two programs. Albrecht helped lead the Wildcats to a national championship in 2005 after the program was dormant until 2002.

“I had a great experience in my college career, but now [I’m happy] being at UMass and part of this special season that we’re in right now,” said McMahon.

Saturday’s game could prove to be a shootout, as both teams are among the nation’s best in offensive production.

The Minutewomen rebounded from their first loss of the season on Tuesday by scoring the second-most goals in a game in program history in its 23-7 win at Marist. In what was probably its most dominant game of the season, UMass also caused a school-record 18 turnovers and nearly topped another historical list, winning 23 draw controls,

UMass ranked 14th in the nation in scoring offense (13.86 goals per game) heading into the Marist contest, a number which has certainly increased since the win. Senior Jackie Lyons (30 points, 16 goals, 14 assists) and freshman Katie Ferris (23 points, 20 goals, three assists) are leading the team in point-production.

With 48 points in seven games, Northwestern’s Shannon Smith is scoring over one point per game more than the second-ranked point-scorer in the nation (Gina Hoffmire, UC Davis 5.11 points per game).

UMass has practiced under the lights since Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s unusual game, in hopes to become more acclimated with the setting.

“Game lights are really bright and sometimes you can lose the ball in the lights, so we want to get adjusted to that,” said McMahon. “Also getting your body adjusted to playing later in the day [is important].”

With the majority of the Minutewomen having experience against the Wildcats in the past, UMass could well be more prepared to challenge Northwestern this weekend.

“This year, as opposed to past year, we have a lot of experience,” said McMahon. The upperclassmen have played NU for two or three years now. That’s going to help, having the upperclassmen having that experience, knowing their style of play.”

Dan Gigliotti can be reached at [email protected].