Seniors Matt Keys, Josh Schwartz to be missed by UMass men’s soccer

By Nicholas Casale

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)
(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

Inside McGuirk stadium, 30 minutes before practice, raindrops can be felt.

Inside an unzipped bag, a paper on atomic structures wilts as the drizzle changes to a steady rain. But organic chemistry is far from what is currently in the mind of the soccer player standing only a few feet away. He puts his foot on the ball and flicks it up. Tick, tick, tick, tack – soggy pellets are sprayed, some annoyingly into his synthetic leather shoes and the ball sails 40 yards to his teammate standing at midfield.

The other has his hands in his pockets and instinctively picks up his foot up, and gently brings the ball back down. He has it now, forgetting for the moment about a lecture on supply and demand in relation to sports marketing. Tick, tick, tick, tack – it’s returned, but misses the target by five yards and slams into the fence narrowly missing the bag.

A misplaced pass a half hour before a practice means nothing to the fan, nor to the coach, and in truth, not even to the player. Instead, the motion of striking and receiving a ball is but a microcosm of a physical process, one that has been repeated so many times that the steps have become hardwired into the cognitive workings of soccer players.

For Massachusetts seniors Matt Keys and Josh Schwartz, this kind of exercise is a reflection of the love and loyalty they have for the game of soccer. Unfortunately, it is the last week they have to spray the ball around the field as student athletes.

“Knowing this is my last game hasn’t really sunk in yet. I am just going to go out and do my best and try and enjoy it, but I’m sure it will be emotional when it’s over,” Keys said.

Keys, the 6-foot-4 central defender and captain, has started all but one game in his UMass career. Along the way he has notched nine goals, four assists and led his team to 11 shut outs in his career, but his impact can’t be accurately captured with numbers alone. Whether it’s a header or a slide tackle that needs to be won, you can bet that Keys was going to be there to deliver. If the Minutemen needed a goal or an attacking threat, Keys was willing to move up top and become the center forward. But center back is where he made his mark, and he showed that the position is about much more than being a “destroyer.”

Indeed, center back is a position that combines eloquence with aggressiveness, and requires a player to be tactically aware, skillful, dominant in the air and communicative. Over four years, Keys has displayed all of these qualities and because of his consistency and attributes, has made a strong case to the next level.

“Matt is a wonderful player and hopefully he can catch a break and play at the next level,” UMass interim coach Devin O’Neill said. “He gives us so much on the field, but I love how he works so hard in practice and in the offseason. He really has been a leader since the day he arrived and it will be sad to see him go.”

On the other side of the field stands the 5-foot-6 Schwartz. The forward has amassed 17 goals and 10 assists in his four-year tenure and has served as a versatile attacking threat. As a player, Schwartz is comfortable playing up top with a strike partner, but also gave the Minutemen valuable minutes by dropping deep – taking on the role of a playmaker. Popping up on either wing or through the middle, his ability to run in behind and use his speed gave the Minutemen a direct attacking option. In addition to being a vertical threat, his skill and vision allowed the attack to flow with short quick passes on the ground.

Schwartz spoke about the upcoming game.

“Hopefully it’s going to be a great game and my plan is to enjoy it,” he said. “It’s sad for it to be over because soccer is a release for me, and has been so important in my life.”

In addition to finding success on the field, they have both worked extremely hard in the classroom in their respective academic fields – Keys is studying sports management; Schwartz is pre-med and plans on attending medical school after graduation.

O’Neill praised the seniors, saying, “They are going to be sorely missed, and losing them won’t be easy. They are great players, great teammates, and great people. They are examples for our younger guys to emulate because of their work ethic on the field and in the classroom. This week we want to go out and play for them as a thank you for everything they have done for the program, but it’s going to be sad when it ends.”

Win, lose or tie, the final game of the season – Saturday at home against St. Bonaventure – is an opportunity for Schwartz and Keys to represent the maroon and white of UMass one last time. Without a chance of qualifying for the playoffs, UMass will have to play for pride and for its seniors. More importantly though, the team will play because they love it – which at the end of the day, is what the game is all about.

Nick Casale can be reached at [email protected]