UMass looks to defend CAA crown

By Cameron McDonough

After the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team’s win against Delaware on Friday, UMass senior attack Will Manny looked at fellow senior Kyle Smith with a grin.

Manny knew that his team had just put forth one of its best performances of the season and  it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Stephen Hewitt/Collegian

The Minutemen (7-7) needed that win and some outside help on Saturday in order to have any chance to repeat as Colonial Athletic Association champions.

And after a long day of waiting, Manny and UMass got the news they were waiting for – their season was still alive. The opportunity to play more lacrosse breathed new life into Manny and he didn’t want to wait any longer to return to the field.

“After practice (on Sunday), my roommates and I we were all packing up for the trip and we were just like ‘We wish we were playing (Monday).’ We feel like we’re ready to go,” he said.

But Manny will have to wait until Wednesday to return to action when the Minutemen face ninth-ranked Penn State (11-3) in the semifinals of the CAA Tournament in University Park, Penn.

UMass is the No. 4 seed with a 2-4 conference record while the Nittany Lions are the No. 1 seed after an undefeated season in conference play.

The two teams faced each other during the regular season on March 16 in a game that Penn State won 7-5 in Amherst.

That was Manny’s first game back from a thumb injury he suffered during the Minutemen’s season opener, so he didn’t feel like he was 100 percent that day. It was also Colin Fleming’s first game back from an injury. But now that he is feeling much better, Manny says he is ready for a second chance at the Nittany Lions.

“I know personally I’m playing with a lot more confidence and in better shape,” he said. “I feel back to my old self, and that game was obviously worrying for me. It was my first game back and I remember I got hit on my thumb the first two minutes of the game so I was kind of thinking about that.”

UMass’ offense had a particularly rough day against the Penn State defense.. The Minutemen got off 40 shots but were only able to convert five of those into goals.

One of the reasons the Nittany Lions’ defense, which ranks first in the nation with a 7.21 goals per game average, was so strong against UMass was due to their zone defense. But this time around, Manny thinks his team can use that to their advantage.

“I think Penn State’s gonna be a little worried playing us, especially since they played zone against us 75 percent of the game in March,” he said, “so that might show they’re a little worried to cover us man-to-man and if we get on them early in the zone they might have to switch out and then we play our game.”

Even if the Minutemen solve the zone defense, they will still have to score on one of the nation’s best goalies, Austin Kaut. His 6.95 goals against average is tops in the nation, while his .629 save percentage is second to only Dillon Ward of Bellarmine.

The Nittany Lions are also dangerous on the offensive end, where they  average 10.79 goals per game. Jack Forster leads their scoring attack with 52 points while TJ Sanders isn’t far behind with 42 points and a team-leading 37 goals.

So with UMass poised to face the No. 9 team in the nation on the road, the players are considering themselves the underdog, which is something that goalie Zach Oliveri loves.

“We (thrive) in the underdog role,” he 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.”

The Minutemen’s quest for a second-straight CAA title will begin at 3 p.m. on Wednesday with the winner facing the winner of the Towson and Drexel game on Friday at 3 p.m. for the championship.

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