McDonough: UMass men’s lacrosse faced with unlikely situation

By Cameron McDonough

Zoe Mervine/Collegian

It all comes down to this. Only one game remains on the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team’s schedule and the importance of it cannot be understated.

The Minutemen host Delaware at 7 p.m. on Friday night at Garber Field and if they are to have any chance at making the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament, they will need to win that game. UMass will also need both Hofstra and Saint Joseph’s to lose on Saturday to secure the No. 4 seed in the tournament.

It’s certainly doable, but it’s still shocking that the Minutemen are in this position to begin with. UMass was coming off of an undefeated regular season in 2012 in which it climbed to the No. 1 ranking in the nation and won the CAA championship before it all came to a sudden halt in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Colgate.

As a result of the Minutemen’s tremendous success in 2012, they were picked to win the CAA title in the preseason coaches’ poll and were ranked No. 12 to start the season.

With all of those preseason accolades on UMass’ side, I predicted it to win the CAA and make the NCAA Tournament as a middle seed in The Massachusetts Daily Collegian’s Lacrosse Special Issue back in February.

If you had told me that the Minutemen would need to win their final game against the Blue Hens and get some outside help before the season started, I would’ve been shocked. I would’ve been even more shocked if you told me that they would need that same scenario after they won their first two games of the season, which included a win against then-No. 4 North Carolina at a neutral site.

But the reality is that they do need a win and some outside help in the final weekend of the regular season and as tough as that may sound, it’s not crazy to think it will happen.

UMass first of all will need to defeat Delaware, which is tied for last place in the conference. Then it will need the Pride to lose at home to the ninth-ranked team in the nation and the first-place team in the CAA, Penn State. Then it will need the Hawks, who are tied with the Blue Hens for last in the conference to lose to the third-place team in the CAA, Towson, on the road.

The scenarios themselves are not that far-fetched. In fact, they might even favor the Minutemen depending on how you look at it.

But once again, it’s hard for me to forget how heavily favored UMass was coming into this season and how unlikely of a final weekend this truly is.

Let me give you a couple of reasons why I think things didn’t turn out as planned for the Minutemen to this point.

First of all, UMass was being picked by virtually everyone to win the CAA once again even without the likes of Art Kell, Anthony Biscardi and Tim McCormack, who all graduated after the 2012 season. The Minutemen have struggled most of the season to find replacements for Kell and Biscardi on offense despite the play of senior Kyle Smith. And even though Zach Oliveri has played well in net as a replacement for McCormack, it hasn’t been without growing pains.

Second, UMass experienced multiple tough breaks early on in the season with injuries to Will Manny and Colin Fleming – both key offensive contributors last season.

It looked like the Minutemen would have little trouble overcoming those issues, especially after their win against the Tar Heels, but the injuries and the youth started to catch up with them in the next game against Harvard and had been apparent for most of the season.

Manny and Fleming eventually came back, but the offense continued to struggle to capitalize on its opportunities. Whether those struggles had to do with the early injuries, the missing pieces or something completely different at the time, it’s not entirely clear. But no matter what the case, those struggles were still apparent.

That was until the UMass offense came alive in a 15-14 loss to Drexel on April 13 at Garber Field. The Minutemen followed that up the next weekend with a thrilling 9-8 win over Hofstra on a last-second, game-winning goal by Fleming to set up this final weekend.

So finally it looks like UMass may have found its mojo from last year, which garnered the high expectations to begin the season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time if that’s the case.

Fleming, Smith and Manny are members of the Minutemen’s senior class who have been in the CAA Tournament in each of their first three years in Amherst. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard to make it 4-for-4, but they can still do it.

But will they? I don’t know. This season has been wildly unpredictable for UMass and the teams it’s fighting with to make the CAA Tournament.

What matters at this point, however, is that there is still a chance.

Cameron McDonough can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Cam_McDonough.