UMass men’s lacrosse set for rematch with Fairfield in CAA tournament

By Anthony Chiusano

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

A season after missing out on playoff action for the first time since 2008, the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team returns to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament as the No. 4 seed.

The Minutemen (4-9, 2-3 CAA) travel to face No. 1 seed Fairfield (9-5, 4-1 CAA) in the semifinals Thursday, looking to avenge a one-goal loss suffered earlier this month.

The Stags won seven of their last eight games to close out the regular season, including a 10-9 win in Amherst April 4 where a five-goal run late in the first half and into the second was key in holding off a late UMass comeback attempt.

“It was a tough one for us because we started out so slow, which has kind of been our M.O. for the season, getting off to a slow start and then having to claw back,” senior midfielder Ryan Izzo said. “But I think it serves as motivation second time around.

“Any time you get to play a team twice in one season, it’s a great opportunity. So we just have to take advantage of it.”

Fairfield has shown a propensity for playing in one-goal games, like in its win over UMass. After starting the season 2-4 – with all four losses coming by one goal – the Stags have excelled in close games since, something Minutemen coach Greg Cannella said is a testament of their experienced group of players.

“Those one-goal losses have turned around for them, they’ve pushed through it,” Cannella said. “They have really strong leadership throughout the team and they are very well-coached.”

This leadership starts on offense with senior Tristan Sperry (20 goals) and junior TJ Neubauer (29). Neubauer scored four goals in the April 4 matchup.

“He’s a great player, we saw that last game,” Izzo said of Neubauer. “We just have to expect the same thing out of him and be ready to fight, ready to play defensively.”

To limit Fairfield’s strong offensive corps, Cannella stressed the importance of goaltending, which has been inconsistent throughout the regular season.

Starting goalie Zach Oliveri followed up a strong 14-save performance against Drexel April 24 with a poor outing in UMass’ season finale against Delaware. The junior allowed seven goals and stopped four shots before being replaced at the half.

Replacing Oliveri for the final 30 minutes was freshman D.J. Smith (four saves, three goals allowed) who has played sparingly this season in similar situations when Oliveri struggled. According to Cannella, the starter in net for Thursday hasn’t been determined yet.

“The wins that we’ve had, look at the save totals, then look at the save totals for the losses. There’s a big difference,” Cannella said. “Hopefully (Oliveri) can respond well but both of these goalies are still fighting and (the decision) is up in the air.”

On offense, although Cannella is happy with the balance of scoring on the score sheet, he added that no one has “taken over” in a game. He said this scoring threat often plays an important role come playoff time.

“We haven’t had a guy who scored more than three goals in one game and that’s not good,” Cannella said. “We need to get off at some point and we haven’t had it.”

The obvious player to look toward for this challenge is sophomore Nick Mariano, who leads the Minutemen with 21 goals. However, he hasn’t recorded a multi-goal game since March 21 at Hofstra.

“Nick knew that coming into the year that after last year he was going to get the top defenseman,” Cannella said. “Until we get somebody who could beat someone off the dodge, he’s still going to get the top guy. And that’s not going to change.”

UMass and Fairfield will square off Thursday at 7 p.m. in Fairfield, Connecticut. No. 2 seed Drexel hosts No. 3 seed Towson in a semifinal game at 4 p.m.

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