Defense is the key behind UMass men’s lacrosse’s winning streak

By Anthony Chiusano

(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)
(Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian)

The Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team fell one play short in a 10-9 loss against Albany on March 7, dropping its record to 0-5 at the time. But in retrospect, the tightly-contested game against the then-No. 16 Great Danes marked the beginning of a Minutemen turnaround.

Since the Albany loss, UMass (3-5, 1-0 CAA) has won three straight by an average of more than six goals per game.

The Minutemen have had great success offensively, scoring 18, 12 and nine goals respectively in the winning streak. But the main difference for UMass during this stretch has been its performance defensively.

The Minutemen have limited their opponents to single-digit goals in each of their last three games. These improvements were on full display in UMass’ most recent win, a low-scoring 9-7 victory over Hofstra Saturday.

The Minutemen finished 13-for-15 on clear attempts in the win and limited the Pride to two goals over the final 21 minutes. After Hofstra scored a pair of goals to cut the deficit to two with less than six minutes remaining, the UMass defense stood strong and established possession to close out the game.

“We were solid down the stretch and pretty disciplined in what we wanted to do,” assistant coach Craig McDonald said. “It was a team effort. Not just the defense but the offense did a good job and we did a good job with ground balls all over the field.”

While head coach Greg Cannella mostly works with the Minutemen attack, McDonald is responsible for defensive preparations. According to junior defender Kyle Karaska, the Minutemen’s defensive corps has bought into McDonald’s system, which has allowed them to gel as a group.

“He has really put in a good defense, something that really fits us and that we’re real comfortable running,” Karaska said. “In the beginning of the year, we were really struggling to keep things together and get everyone on the same page, but recently we’ve really strung everything together. We’ve been on the same page and have been executing brilliantly.”

McDonald said the team’s chemistry has been apparent during UMass’ three-game winning streak. He added that the Minutemen’s tough schedule – UMass opened its 2015 season facing four ranked opponents in five games – has aided in the defense’s growth.

“We ran into some tough teams early on there and we’ve done a good job of growing in every game and every practice (since),” McDonald said. “It’s just the guys meshing together and really growing together as a unit.”

Junior goalie Zach Oliveri has been at the forefront of the Minutemen’s defensive charge. After starting the season poorly, he’s posted a save percentage of .789 in the last three wins and finished with 13 saves against Hofstra.

“He’s turned it on amazingly, we couldn’t ask more from him,” Karaska said of Oliveri’s recent play. “He’s really just staying on his head every game. He’s really making us look a lot better than sometimes it looks.”

But Oliveri credited Karaska and the defensive play in front of him for his recent success, saying they have done a good job of setting him up for easy saves.

“They really gave me shots that I would like to see,” Oliveri said. “They did a great job of keeping it tight and forcing outside shots. Hats off to the coaches on both ends for preparing us well.”

Defensive stops are likely to be a major theme in the Minutemen’s next game on Saturday against No. 18 Towson, the nation’s fourth-ranked defense.

The Tigers have allowed an average of 7.33 goals per game and have limited opponents to less than 10 goals in seven of eight games this season.

“They’re a great team and they always give us a battle,” Oliveri said. “It’s going to be a dogfight.”

UMass is no stranger to Towson’s aggressive defense. In last year’s conference matchup, the Tigers prevailed 6-5 at Garber Field. However, Karaska said he believes the Minutemen’s offense will find greater success this time around.

“I have faith in our offense to really put it past these guys,” Karaska said. “And I think our defense is going to hold down the fort and really shut down their offense.”

Karaska added that in a matchup where possession time will prove crucial, the outcome will be determined by the “hustle stats,” notably groundball pickups and faceoff wins.

“I really think the game is going to be won on ground balls, toughness and just who executes on both sides of the ball,” Karaska said.

Anthony Chiusano can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @a_chiusano24.