UMass field hockey needs Nicole Miller to be spark plug throughout A-10 play

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Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

The final drill of Tuesday’s practice was minutes from commencing; the Massachusetts field hockey team was split up into two groups – maroon and white vs. grey and black.

Leading the maroon and white team was junior forward Nicole Miller – animated in her actions, she quickly gave out directions to the five teammates attentively watching her orders. Her overall energetic demeanor along with her knowledge of the sport has transformed her into an offensive spark plug, something that UMass undoubtedly needs heading into the second half of the season.

The backend of the 2015 schedule can be categorized as must-win field hockey as the Minutewomen (5-4, 1-1 Atlantic 10) are set to face six conference opponents in their final nine games.

UMass’ defense demonstrated in its 1-0 loss to No. 9 Stanford Sunday that it could play a full 70-minute game at a remarkable level. The same, however, cannot be said for the offense, which has yet to prove that it can be consistently dominant.

As often mentioned, a large part of the Minutewomen’s offensive woes has been their inability to take advantage of opportunities. Any shot of success in the second half will require UMass to make more of their shots count.

Enter Nicole Miller.

So far this season, Miller has a goal-to-shot ratio of 4-to-11, a percentage of .364, by far the most of any of the Minutewomen’s leading scorers.

“I’m being a lot smarter on my decision making this year,” Miller said. “Last season I would run right into the defender and not have good ball control.”

Miller may in fact be one of the smartest offensive forces that UMass has at its disposal. She attributes a lot of that to the work she did last spring with Minutewomen coach Carla Tagliente and assistant coach Shannon Taylor.

“This spring, Carla and Shannon, they had me going around the goalie and being smarter with my plays,” Miller said.

This offseason work helped Miller become more efficient with the shots she took. In nine games last season, Miller recorded only two goals on 10 shots. The shot totals are roughly the same this year, but Miller has converted on more of her opportunities.

Just like a spark plug in any smooth running engine, energy is needed to get things rolling and Miller packs plenty of it into every start she makes.

Despite being only 4-foot-11, Miller always manages to make herself apparent to her teammates and to her opponents. Rarely does an offensive drive end without Miller controlling the ball.

“I want to bring a certain energy to the team because I think my energy brings everyone else on the team up,” Miller said.

The Minutewomen cannot afford to be apathetic heading into A-10 play.

When Miller scored three goals against Dartmouth on Sept. 13, the Minutewomen jumped the Big Green for six total goals, showing their offensive potential. It’s evident that when Miller finds the scoresheet, the rest of the team elevates their game as well.

The Minutewomen begin their stretch of conference games against Saint Louis Friday. The lowly Billikens are 0-11 this season and feature the worst shooting percentage in the A-10 (.097).

“Every conference game is really important,” Miller said. “Our goal was to be undefeated in the A-10, that may not have happened but now we know we need to win every game from now on to prove our spot in the Atlantic 10 conference.”

For UMass, games against teams like Saint Louis can easily be gifts, but just as easily be traps. Defensively, the Minutewomen need to ride the momentum from their stellar performance against Stanford, while offensively, Miller will have to spark the unit to perform consistently against a bottom-tier opponent.

Facing the Billikens in the first game of the second half sets UMass up to build a lot of confidence heading into the more difficult conference games to close out the season.

Saint Louis will host the Minutewomen Friday at 3 p.m.

Philip Sanzo can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Philip_Sanzo