Strohecker: Minutewomen have what it takes for deep NCAA run

By Patrick Strohecker

Cade Belisle/Collegian

If you were to take one look at the Massachusetts women’s lacrosse team after its first game of the season, you would have thought that there’s no way that it would make the NCAA Tournament.

That’s what a 16-4 loss to second-ranked Northwestern will do to a team’s perception in the eyes of the casual fan.

But it’s also important to step back and base a team’s performance on the entire season, not just one game.

And fast forward ahead two and a half months and that same Minutewomen team is heading to the NCAA Tournament. After an ugly season-opening game, UMass (17-2) won 17 of its next 18 games, including its fifth straight Atlantic 10 championship on Sunday, which earned the team an automatic berth to the national tournament.

It’s not unusual for the Minutewomen to make it to the NCAA Tournament, but what is new is that this year they finally look like a team that can make a deep run.

In previous seasons, UMass has managed to squeak by the play-in game but then was seemingly always over-matched in its first round contest. This year, its goal is to get past the first round matchup and prove that it deserves the same recognition as the other national powers, and rightfully so.

This year’s edition of the Minutewomen features an offense that has several threats to score, a midfield that makes opposing teams want to pull its hair out and a defense that has the potential to shut down an offense for extended periods of time.

Take the A-10 Tournament for example. Entering its biggest weekend of the season, UMass was forced to play two of the toughest opponents the conference had to offer without A-10 Offensive Player of the Year Katie Ferris, who was battling an illness. With her sidelined for much of the two games, the Minutewomen still managed to put up 27 goals in the two wins, with Ferris only accounting for one goal and one assist.

But that’s the gift of having a “seven-person attack,” a claim that senior Lauren Terracciano made earlier in the season. UMass can look to other players for offensive support when Ferris is out. Sam Rush and Cori Murray combined for 21 points in the A-10 Tournament, continuing their strong offensive production from the regular season. Even Melissa Carelli chipped in with four goals from the midfield, which leads me to that part of the field.

At the beginning of the season, the midfield was an area of concern for the Minutewomen, as they were forced to replace most of last year’s seniors.

But with a steady mix of upperclassmen and underclassmen making up the midfield area, UMass developed a midfield group that wreaked havoc on opponents. Running nine or 10 deep in any given game, this year’s squad is able to give a rest to some of its top players and not miss a beat with them on the sideline.

And on the back end, the defense is one of strongest in the country. Entering the A-10 Tournament, it was ranked No. 10 in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering only 8.18 goals per game. That ranking is sure to improve after only giving up 12 goals in the two wins this past weekend.

It says a lot about your defense when you can make a change at goalkeeper with only three games to go in the regular season and seemingly not miss a beat. But that’s just what UMass coach Angela McMahon did.

At halftime in the team’s game against Temple on April 12, McMahon removed sophomore starter Rachel Vallarelli in the hopes that Jamie Schiloski could give her team a spark. Three weeks later, Schiloski backstopped her team to an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, thanks in large part to the stellar play of her defenders in front of her.

At a school where NCAA Tournament berths are hard to come by, it is becoming an annual event for the Minutewomen.

But getting past the first round game is the next step, and perhaps the most difficult, and if any year was the time for UMass to make that jump, 2013 is the year it has the tools to do it.

 

Patrick Strohecker can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.