Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass seniors play huge role in Senior Day win over Davidson

All Minutemen goal involvements come from seniors in 3-1 win
Devin Lippman / UMass Athletics (2023)

Senior Day couldn’t have been scripted any more compellingly for the Massachusetts men’s soccer team in its 3-1 win over Davidson on a rainy Saturday.

After going down early through a penalty, UMass’ (7-4-5, 4-2-1 Atlantic 10) veterans rose to the occasion as every goal contribution came from a senior, leading the Minutemen to a dominant comeback victory over the conference leaders. Alec Hughes starred again with the final two goals, Nick Zielonka added a goal and an assist, Mike Willis picked up a pair of assists, Ryan Levay also grabbed one and even goalkeeper Matt Zambetti got in on the action with a secondary assist.

“[The seniors have] been huge for the program,” UMass head coach Fran O’Leary said. “Now, I think with the result they’ll secure as another playoff spot, so they’ve been in multiple A-10 playoffs, they’ve been to an NCAA Tournament. But more importantly, they’re a bunch of great lads. They’re guys UMass can be proud of, the UMass soccer program can be proud of. They’re quality, quality individuals who carry themselves well and [I’m] absolutely delighted. This is a special day when they can all get to contribute and be on the field and beat a very good team.”

As the final graduating class who lived COVID-19 during its time at UMass, these seniors have been together through thick and thin. This win over the Wildcats (7-4-5, 4-2-1 A-10) means they clinch an A-10 playoff berth for the third time in the last five years.

“We’ve been here since COVID, our freshman year was that COVID year so our first semester we were locked in a dorm for three months straight and couldn’t leave the dorms, couldn’t really do anything,” Zielonka said. “So, I mean, we’ve been together since the beginning. It’s kind of just grown over the years, so kind of just been close the whole time.”

It was fitting that Hughes scored the last two goals of the game for the Minutemen. He’s now up to 13 goals on the year, which ties for most in Division-I, firmly establishing himself as one of the best players in the nation. With his fourth brace of the season, Hughes was unstoppable as the spearhead of this UMass attack — and is only getting better year after year after despite already starting at a high level as a freshman.

Hughes’ resume was stacked since year one. He was named the A-10 Rookie of the Year, a First-Team All-Atlantic 10 selection and earned a spot in the United Soccer Coaches First-Team All-Region after leading the conference in goals with seven in 2020-21.

His sophomore season declined in production as he sat behind All-Conference striker Filippo Begliardi Ghidini in the pecking order, but he still picked up three goals and two assists. It was as a junior that his production skyrocketed, when he led the conference in goals with 10 and was named the A-10 Co-Offensive Player of the Year.

Nearing the end of his UMass career, the Glastonbury, Connecticut native is currently tied for fifth in the Minutemen’s all-time career goals ranking with 33.

Joining Hughes in the most productive attacking partnership in the country, Zielonka scored the equalizer against Davidson with a powerful close-range finish in the 28th minute. He then assisted Hughes’ winner in the 78th minute with a flicked-on header.

Zielonka’s numbers speak for themselves as the creative hub for the Minutemen. His five goals and nine assists combine for 19 points, good for second in the conference behind Hughes’ 23. The nine assists on the season places him at a tie for second in D-I.

The two forwards have been a handful for the opposition this year, combining for 18 goals and 10 assists. That’s as many goals as UMass has given up all year, and more than six different A-10 teams have scored so far.

“It feels great,” Zielonka said of scoring and assisting on Senior Day. “I mean, it’s been it’s been a great four years and I feel like it’s just all built up to this practice every day. It’s all ingrained in us by now. So it’s just feels like it’s like paying off today.”

Two experienced midfielders also contributed with assists. Willis and Levay combined to assist Zielonka on the first goal, then Willis played a beautifully weighed long ball for Hughes over the top of the defense to help the Minutemen put the game away in the 85th minute.

A senior from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Willis notched a career-high two assists in his 53rd appearance under O’Leary. A Swiss-army-knife kind of player, he’s been deployed all over the pitch his whole career, with his versatility earning him playing time at full-back, in midfield, and even as a winger or forward player.

Levay, a fifth-year player from Vienna, Virginia and one of UMass’ captains, played as hard as he always does in the middle of the park. His leadership is crucial for the Minutemen and with 76 career games he’s by far the most experienced player on the roster.

“You know, if you’ve played a lot of games, obviously it means I trust you,” O’Leary said. “And I think everybody on the field trusts our two captains, both Levay and Jack [Englebert]. And both of them have played an enormous amount of minutes here.”

Despite correctly guessing the right side of the goal in Denis Krioutchenkov’s penalty, Zambetti couldn’t save the well-placed shot that opened the scoring in the 10th minute. From that point on, the goalkeeper from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania put up a flawless performance with safety and confidence at the back and accurate long passes to play over the Davidson press.

Zambetti transferred in from Virginia Tech as a senior in 2022 and became a two-year starter for O’Leary. Now a graduate student at UMass, Zambetti once faced the Minutemen as the starting goalkeeper for the No. 25 Hokies, playing to a 3-3 draw in 2021.

The senior impact on this team cannot be understated, with the top four point scorers and seven of the top 11 leaders in minutes played being seniors. Englebert, a senior midfielder and the other team captain, is another impact veteran. Pierre de la Croix-Vaubois and Michael Rojas are also graduate students who became starters after transferring in this season.

Replacing last year’s seniors was a big question mark the Minutemen had to answer, and it’s safe to say this group stepped up to the occasion with the team’s best conference record since they went to the NCAA Tournament in 2020-21.

“[Making the playoffs] means everything to us,” Zielonka said of this senior class. “I mean, we’re going to give it our all and we’re going to take it game by game, we’re not looking too far ahead right now. But I think if we just keep doing all the basics game by game, we’ll have a shot.”

UMass will travel to Dayton, Ohio to face the Flyers in the last game of the regular season on Oct. 28.

Pedro Gray Soares can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @P_GraySoares.

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