On Saturday, for the first time in six years, the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team completed its journey to capture the Colonial Athletic Association championship, on the heels of a decisive 12-8 victory over Towson in front of a packed house at a sunny Garber Field.
After getting out to a slow start in its 2018 campaign, UMass (11-4) rebounded from its early trials and tribulations in dominant fashion by running away with the regular season title, amassing an eleven-game win-streak and undefeated (7-0) record in league play along the way.
Just under a year removed from their last playoff meeting with the Tigers (7-8), which saw the Minutemen fall short in the 2017 title game, a combination of contributions from veteran returners and explosive newcomers granted UMass with a long-awaited, redemptive title win.
“We just started to piece it together early in the year,” Chris Connolly, freshman attackman and CAA Rookie of the Year, said. “Starting 1-4, none of us were down. We all had faith. We were all like ‘Let’s just get back to what we do, keep pushing, and keep grinding.’ And that’s what we did, and we just kept winning and kept winning. And here we are today, CAA champs.”
Connolly, who collected six points (three goals, three assists) in the championship win, registered at least one point in each appearance that he made over the course of the sixteen-game season.
“[Connolly] is a very confident person,” said Minutemen coach Greg Cannella. “He’s a cool customer and the pressure doesn’t affect him. He’s played that way all year.”
In the first quarter of action, Towson found success by locking down the perimeter in its defensive zone in front of goalie Shane Brennan (6 saves) and disallowed UMass’ primary producers, Buddy Carr and Jeff Trainor, from any decent chances at firing off clean shots.
“[At] the beginning we seemed a little tense,” Cannella said. “We were trying to make plays and maybe probably doing a little bit too much, but we hung in there.”
When the Tigers jumped out to a quick two-goal lead while the Minutemen were having trouble getting on the board, Connolly took the initiative and successfully began facilitating the ball from his typical position behind the cage to set up his cutting teammates and open the attack.
“I knew they were definitely going to pull those guys and I knew they were going to slide off of them fast,” he said. “So, it was a good opportunity for myself, and for Devin Spencer, and Jesse [Leung] as well, to step up on the attack and put some goals in the net.”
Connolly did just that two minutes into the opening frame, when he scored his first of the game to put UMass on the board, as well as 19 seconds into the second quarter when he buried his second tally of the afternoon to push its cushion to three.
After a pair of Towson goals at the close of the first half and another to start the third, which cut the Minutemen lead to one, Connolly stepped up again and, this time, dished assists on three consecutive plays that resulted in scores to open the game back up.
“I was seeing the field really well,” he said of facilitating the ball to his teammates. “I was seeing slides, good matchups, cutters, and we were thankful to score on a bunch of them.”
“He probably should have had six or seven assists,” Cannella added. “He’s been moving the ball well all year, but we’re thrilled that he was able to do it today because he gave us a big charge.”
To the CAA Player of the Year, Isaac Paparo, contributions from the young guys, like Connolly, were just what UMass needed to secure its first postseason title for the program in six years.
“They’re not even freshman anymore,” the junior tri-captain said after the win. “Everybody moves up a class. We’ve been playing together for so long, they’re just another part of the [it]. It’s important to have the youth push up and the older guys push down [to form] this great bond.”
“It’s crazy honestly,” Connolly said, reflecting on the wild ride that the season entailed following the hat and t-shirt ceremony. “We go out here every day and we work hard, putting in extra work all the time with everybody. It’s just how it goes, you work hard, and good things pay off.”
With the win, the Minutemen secured a chance to compete for a spot in the impending NCAA tournament, which commences with a play-in game on May 9 between the two lowest-ranked qualifiers to determine who will receive the final spot in the ultimate, 16-team tournament.
“We’re here to keep going and we’re here to win,” said a confident Connolly after the win.
Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.