After winning both the Atlantic 10 regular season and postseason title, the Massachusetts men’s soccer team was rewarded with a home game in the first round of the NCAA tournament, as they take on Colgate at Rudd Field on Thursday.
The game will be a rematch of a midseason matchup, one that resulted in a 2-1 victory for the Minutemen.
Just as UMass (15-3-3, 6-1-1 Atlantic 10) won its conference title, the Raiders (10-10-1, 4-4-1 Patriot) won the Patriot League title with a win over Holy Cross. UMass coach Fran O’Leary is not taking Colgate lightly even after the win early in the season.
“They’re on a five-game unbeaten streak, they’ve won their last five, they won their conference, they’re coming in with a lot of confidence, but so are we,” O’Leary said. “We’re coming off winning the conference, winning the league, so I think it’ll be two highly-motivated teams, two highly-confident teams so I think it’ll be a great game.”
The Minutemen are happy to be playing the game on their home grass, a place they been nearly unbeatable this season. UMass went 10-0-1 in its first 11 games at Rudd Field before a 3-2 loss to Fordham in the final regular season game on Nov. 1.
Freshman Davis Smith felt “pretty excited” returning to Rudd.
“We didn’t think we were coming back,” Smith said. “We thought the game against Fordham might have been the last one, then we thought the game against Saint Louis would be the last one. Get another home game, great for the seniors, great for all of us.”
For the Minutemen, being in the NCAA tournament is something nobody had predicted at the start of the season. They were picked to finish eighth in the conference, yet finished the season ranked in the coach’s poll.
This is the first time since 2008 UMass has appeared in the tournament.
“If you told us at the beginning of the season we’d have two trophies and a home game at Rudd, we would take that hands down,” O’Leary said. “I hope we get a good crowd and have a good performance.”
Smith, an Amherst resident, knows how much being in the tournament means to the team.
“I was excited because I know it means a lot to the program,” Smith said. “We haven’t been here in a long time. It meant a lot to me. Being from Amherst I know how much it means to the program.”
Much of the Minutemen’s offensive success can be credited to Smith, who won the A-10 rookie of the year award after finishing with a team-high 10 goals.
In the beginning of the season, the 6-foot-6 midfielder was struggling to find the back of the net. Smith scored his first career goal against Colgate Sept. 16 and his scoring has taken off since.
“I never thought I would keep scoring,” Smith said. “It was a pretty fun game. I think I scored the game winner that game. It would be great if I could do it again. Actually it would be better if it wasn’t close.”
While the NCAA tournament can cause teams to switch up what they’re doing, O’Leary plans to keep the same formula that has brought UMass success all season.
“I think we just keep doing what we do,” O’Leary said. “We defend as a group, we back each other up, and we attack as a collective also. We’ve just gone and beaten three teams, in Saint Louis, Fordham and VCU, who in preseason were the top three teams in our conference. So if we can keep replicating the performances we’ve shown in the Atlantic 10 tournament, I’m confident we’ll have a good day.”
“I feel we’re quietly confident, excited about what we’ve accomplished, it’s a lot of fun,” O’Leary said. “So there’s a steely determination to keep it going a little bit longer.”
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
Thomas Johnston can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter @TJ__Johnston.