Led by Austin Spencer, defensive midfielders’ play to be vital for UMass lacrosse down stretch

By Anthony Chiusano

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

The Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team has struggled to find consistent scoring opportunities of late en route to its second losing streak of the season.

Heading into Saturday’s final nonconference matchup at Hartford in search of its first double-digit scoring output in four games, UMass (3-7, 1-2 CAA) may turn to its group of defensive midfielders to help jumpstart its attack.

According to Minutemen coach Greg Cannella, initiating turnovers and winning ground balls will be crucial in maximizing offensive opportunities and building momentum over UMass’ last three regular season games.

“The more team defense we can play, the better off we’ll be,” Cannella said. “But the individuals have to make that team effort.”

One of the midfielders at the forefront of this effort is sophomore Austin Spencer. Often assigned to cover the opposition’s top midfielder, Spencer leads the team this year in ground balls (41) and is fourth in caused turnovers (eight).

“The last three or four games he’s got eight-plus ground balls for us so that’s big, it’s huge,” Cannella said of Spencer. “When you make a stop, you have to come up with the ground ball and Austin’s done a very good job with that.”

After being sparingly used in the beginning of his freshman season, Spencer emerged as a consistent weapon toward the end of 2014 behind greater comfortability and confidence.

“I feel really comfortable out there moving, flying all around,” Spencer said. “Hopefully it just keeps increasing.”

Spencer added that the success from this year in winning possession battles has come naturally.

“I don’t think about it too much,” Spencer said. “I try to take advantage of the opportunities I have and I’ve been able to capitalize on most of them as far as ground balls and making plays.

“When the ball is on the ground, I just attack it.”

Despite his personal success in fighting for possession, Spencer said the Minutemen must improve in this area to give the attack more chances and provide the defense a rest. UMass ranks third out of six CAA teams in ground balls per game (28.5) and, while it’s currently first in caused turnovers per game (7.2), the advantage has largely been offset by its average of 13.2 turnovers on offense.

“We definitely want to make more plays as a defense and as a team,” Spencer said. “We’ve been doing a pretty decent job but we’ve been playing a lot of defense and we want to get the ball on the offense as much as we can.”

But aside from contributions in the defensive zone, Cannella said that the defensive midfielders can also have a direct influence on offense by turning its possession wins into quick transition opportunities.

For a team with just two 20-point scorers through 10 games – Nick Mariano and Peter Lindley – these opportunities with numbers can aid in the Minutemen’s search for improved scoring depth.

Spencer was the benefactor of this transition style in UMass’ largest win of the season, an 18-5 victory over Quinnipiac on March 10. With senior midfielder Ryan Izzo leading the charge after gaining possession, Spencer capped a third period attack with his first goal as a Minuteman.

“Izzo ran the ball down the field and I noticed that one of their guys ran off the field so I decided to stay on,” Spencer said. “I just decided to step into the open room and he fed me the ball.

“It was pretty cool, being my first collegiate goal, but I would like to see some more as the future goes on.”

Cannella said that the defensive midfielders’ appearances on the score sheet has been satisfying to see. He particularly highlighted Izzo (three goals), Dylan Gruder (one goal) and Brendan Schroeder (six assists) as key contributors in addition to Spencer.

“It’s great for those guys,” Cannella said. “They’re going to get opportunities in transition and hopefully they can make the most of them.”

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