UMass embraces underdog role heading into the CAA Tournament

By Nick Canelas

Araz Havan/Collegian

Not known among the traditional college lacrosse powers such as Duke, John Hopkins and Syracuse, the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse program is no stranger to the underdog role.

UMass has established itself as a solid program with 19 NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 30 years, but has never elevated itself to that elite status with the essential national championship to back it up.

So given this year’s circumstances, it comes as little surprise that the Minutemen will be the underdogs yet again.

UMass (7-7, 2-4 Colonial Athletic Association) needed help from multiple teams on the final night of the regular season just to sneak into the CAA Tournament as the No. 4 seed despite its losing conference record. And in Wednesday’s CAA semifinal, the Minutemen play none other than top-seeded and host team Penn State – a team they lost to earlier this season.

With the Nittany Lions as the favorite heading into the tournament, the expectation is that UMass will lose. But it’s something the Minutemen embrace wholeheartedly.

In fact, it’s something they may even like.

“With our record 2-4 in the conference, other teams going into each game I’m sure were just like ‘We’re gonna roll UMass, we’re gonna kill them,’” senior attack Will Manny said. “Our senior class, we love when teams say that.”

Last year was a much different scenario for the Minutemen. They were the host team and were No. 1 in the nation following a perfect regular season. Although UMass coach Greg Cannella would rather have that situation all over again, he feels his team is in a more comfortable position this time.

“Traditionally we have been (the underdog), so I think we’re a little bit more comfortable being here as a program,” Cannella said. “Heck, I’d rather be the No. 1 seed playing at home, so I’m not happy, but I think this is a situation that we’re used to.”

Manny believes that the Minutemen have spent a majority of this season as the underdog, especially after losing streaks of four and three games in the middle of the season, leaving their postseason chances slim.

But no moment of perseverance stands out to Manny more than his team’s Feb. 16 win over then-No. 4 North Carolina, which is now No. 1 in the country. UMass was without both Manny and Colin Fleming due to injury, facing a three-goal deficit heading into the fourth quarter against a superior opponent, but prevailed late with a 12-11 triumph.

“We were the underdog in that game, we’ve been the underdog in pretty much every game we’ve played this season,” Manny said. “But now, knowing that we’ve slipped into the tournament, we’re the No. 4 seed so we’re the underdog the whole entire way regardless of who we play. I love it personally and I know our whole entire team does now and believes in it.”

Because of this, the Minutemen believe they have themselves in prime position for an upset on Wednesday. Their backs are against the wall, the odds are against them and this tournament is their only hope at another shot at an NCAA berth.

But UMass couldn’t be more excited.

“We love it, we (thrive) in the underdog role,” goalkeeper Zachary Oliveri said. “All the guys love it and a lot of guys on the team have been in an underdog role as they’ve gone through high school and not really getting looked at and going to college. And that’s why UMass is so successful is that we (thrive) in the underdog’s feel and we really wanna prove people wrong and show them what UMass lacrosse is all about.”

Manny said: “No one believes in our program ever, and just being able to slip in like this, I’m sure some people around the country don’t even know we made the CAA Tournament, they don’t even know what’s going on, so that’s just the best set up for us right now. We’re just gonna go in Wednesday, keep it quiet, and when 3 p.m. comes we’re just gonna strap it up and go at those guys.”

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.