UMass looks to extend its winning streak against Merrimack on Sunday

Fitness and depth play vital roles in the Minutewomen’s recent success


Chris Tucci/UMass Athletics

By Kevin Schuster, Assistant Sports Editor

Coming off a game winning overtime goal Thursday afternoon, Lauren Smida and the Massachusetts women’s soccer team already have their eyes set on Merrimack who will be visiting Rudd Field on Sunday.

Unlike their unusual spring season, the Minutewomen (3-2) have already played a slew of games. Entering its sixth match in just over three weeks’ time, UMass focuses on rest and recovery to ensure its players come into Sunday’s game with high energy.

“It’s hard the day after the game to get the players who played a lot of minutes involved in the live stuff,” head coach Jason Dowiak said. “We try to use the day after games to hype up the minutes for the players that maybe didn’t play as much.”

Despite the quick turnarounds and limited preparation for games, Smida credits Thursday’s performance as a driving factor for the intensity levels at Friday morning’s practice.

“The energy was great today,” Smida said. “I think that Ava’s penalty kick was definitely a turning point in the game, and it provided the necessary energy to go into overtime and secure that win. We were able to be resilient and come out with the win and I think that showed today in practice. We always carry on.”

Fitness has been one of the Minutewomen’s strong suits this season, coming into the 2021 campaign more prepared physically than in years prior with Dowiak at the helm.

“I’m very happy with how the squad came in this year,” Dowiak said. “I think it’s the best prepared we’ve looked since I’ve been here. [Sports Performance Coach] Andrew Cormier has done an amazing job to get them to a level of physical development and then maintain it when it gets tough.”

At practice, competition looms large as players are still fighting for starting jobs and more minutes during games. Despite keeping a similar roster for the entirety of the season leading up to this point, Dowiak will be making some changes heading into Sunday to keep players motivated to earn the start.

“There’s a really high level of competition especially in a few positions,” Dowiak said. “We more or less have had the same starting lineup, but I think we’ll see two, maybe three changes in the lineup just to keep that competitive mentality as high as can be and to keep players motivated.”

One of the only changes in the Minutewomen’s starting 11 this season was at the goalkeeper position after Bella Mendoza suffered a minor injury a week ago, handing the position over to Megan Olszewski who has already recorded 15 saves in her three appearances.

“For me it’s just about consistency and that we keep winning,” Olszewski said. “I go into every game knowing that our opponents are good and that we should play to the level I know we’re capable of playing to. I think we need to build off our last game and come into Merrimack ready to perform.”

Olszewski was given minutes towards the end of UMass’ 3-0 victory over UMass Lowell, getting her accustomed to playing at a high level in the following games during Mendoza’s absence.

“Meg is one of the hardest working players,” Dowiak said. “We talked a lot before she left at the end of the spring semester and we made it really clear what she needed to do to improve and see herself on the field and she came in super fit, her mentality was great, and she started competing from day one of preseason.”

The Warriors (0-4-1) have yet to show a prominent striking attack over the course of the season that could penetrate the Minutewomen’s dominant defensive line. UMass sees the challenges lie in Merrimack’s mentality and style of play which could pose issues if its side doesn’t come prepared to play.

“Merrimack is really different from our last couple of opponents,” Dowiak said. “I think they’ll press us even higher, which we have seen, but they’re very fast forward thinking so I think we just need to be prepared for that mentally. We’re going to show our team a lot of what they do tomorrow in our preparation for Sunday.”

Kickoff from Rudd Field is set for 1 p.m. Sunday.

Kevin Schuster can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @KevinESchuster