Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Offensively charged UMass men’s lacrosse readies itself for No. 7 Penn State in CAA opener

By Peter Cappiello

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Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

It’s not the first time, as Greg Cannella pointed out, that his team is up against elite competition.

The Massachusetts men’s lacrosse coach rattled off the names Albany, Ohio State and Brown when he started to recall tough opponents this season.

This time, it’s No. 7 Penn State – the team that bounced UMass, 10-7, in last year’s Colonial Athletic Association semifinals on May 1 – Saturday at noon in the conference opener for both sides.

The No. 15 Minutemen (5-1) are coming off a 16-11 win over Providence, highlighted by junior attack Grant Whiteway’s seven-goal explosion, but will face the best goalie in the nation in Nittany Lions (3-2) senior Austin Kaut,who won the Ensign C. Markland Kelly Jr. award in 2013.

“They’re loaded,” said Cannella, who also pointed out Penn State scoring leader Shane Sturgis, a senior attack with 29 points (21 goals), as a dangerous player. “They’re a very good team; a team that plays hard and very aggressively. We’ve got challenges ahead.”

Cannella touted the Nittany Lions’ midfield and experienced defense, which runs in transition, can play man-to-man and is also a threat in zone defense. UMass is winless in the last two meetings with Penn State, but Cannella said that this year is a new game and a new opportunity.

Senior attack/midfielder Matt Whippen said it’s become tradition to see the Nittany Lions in tournament play over the last three years.

“We’re real excited,” Whippen said. “It’s almost to the extent where it’s built up a rivalry between us. If there was one game on our schedule to circle, this one would be a big one.”

Whippen, who has 10 points (seven goals) this season, is familiar with the opposition and is anticipating Sturgis’ speed and craftiness inside the crease. He added that it’s important to keep emotions under control to avoid a loss of focus and prevent mistakes on the field.

It’s something that UMass has done well this year, particularly after bouncing back from a 25-10 loss to Albany.

The Nittany Lions lost to Denver, 15-11, on Monday, snapping a 14-game road win streak.

Whiteway had a hat trick the last time he played Penn State and his sights are set on Kaut. He is aware of the netminder’s skill level, but said there’s nothing else to do except put shots on net.

“We’ve been shooting the ball well the past few games,” Whiteway said. “If we keep on carrying that over, that’ll be one of the positive things. Just trying to out-scrap them and win the game in between the lines – transition, ground balls, clearing, riding – winning the ground ball war will be huge.”

Nittany Lions sophomore attack T.J. Sanders and redshirt senior midfielder Kyle VanThof are second and third in scoring with 13 and 12 points, respectively. They serve as a counter to freshman attack Nick Mariano – the Minutemen’s leading scorer with 18 points – and Whippen.

The latter is optimistic that his team will continue to better itself to the point where it is unrecognizably transformed come late April. He has that same goal on the individual level in terms of skill.

“The ability to reach our goal is not a one-time thing,” Whippen said. “It’s a journey. We’ve got to take it one game at a time. There’s no complacency.”

Peter Cappiello can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @petecapps.

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