UMass head coach Greg Cannella believes that regardless of Division, leadership is the key for any lacrosse team.
As Cannella's Minutemen (ranked No. 15 in the Face-Off Yearbook) begin final preparations for their Feb. 12 season opener against Army, that theme continues to ring true in Amherst.
"Leadership is the key, every single year," said Cannella, whose team is also ranked No. 16 in the USILA Division I Coaches Poll released Monday. "And it's a special type of leadership that makes the difference."
Following a season in which the UMass lacrosse team saw plenty of time ranked in the Inside Lacrosse Top 20 before sputtering to a final 8-6 record, leadership, according to Cannella, will be the key factor in getting the Minutemen over the hump this season.
Much of the Minutemen's late-season slide in 2010 was caused by injuries. But if all goes to plan this spring, UMass will finish strong, healthy or not. UMass dropped four of its final five games on the schedule last season and much of the reason for the downfall was in a lack of offensive production. In each of the four losses to end the season, the Minutemen failed to score more than 10 goals. Luckily, the Minutemen return four of their top five scorers from last year, including Will Manny, Art Kell and Anthony Biscardi.
This sour taste, however, is a key motivational factor in the early going for the coaches and players that make up the Minutemen. Things turned around so quickly in the final stretch of the season for UMass that this year's team is focused on getting back to work.
"It's an attitude change," said Cannella. "We try to focus on every single day and to make ourselves better each and every day. We continue to have high expectations of each other and everyone returning -- players and coaches -- have that sour taste in our mouth.
The Mintuemen were cruising at 7-2 and seemingly ready for the postseason before faltering late in the year and losing four of their final five games.
"The hope is that you can continue to be strong throughout the season even when we're worn down," he said. "You wear down physically but mentally, you must remain sharp. The mental aspect of our game at the end of last year wasn't very strong."
Game to Watch
UMass vs. Army, Feb. 12
Few games have the hype and build up that opening day games have and this season opener may be the biggest UMass has ever seen. The Minutemen will take on Army at home on Feb. 12. Always a tough place to play before late March, Amherst will welcome the 13th-ranked team in the nation, according to Face-Off Yearbook (12 in the USILA Coaches Poll, 13 in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse Media Poll, both released Monday), and it's surely a game the Minutemen have already started to prepare for.
UMass will also take on Brown, Drexel and Hofstra, which are also ranked in the Top 20.
Will Manny 2.0
As a freshman last season, Will Manny simply couldn't have played any better. The standout finished with a team-high 27 goals and 18 assists and was ranked as the No. 2. rookie by Inside Lacrosse. His impressive freshman campaign won him Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Week on two separate occasions and the conference's Rookie of the Year award.
Manny will undoubtedly take an even bigger role in the Minutemen attack in this, his second season. With one year under his belt and considering just how dominant he was on the offensive end last year, it stands to reason that Manny will respond well despite having a target on his back from opposing defenders.
"For (Will), we're trying to get him to focus on not trying to do everything," said Cannella. "Last year, he picked up the slack when our leading scorer went down. And this year, he'll definitely get his goals.
"But he's working on becoming a better decision maker. He's an excellent player and he's becoming a better leader out there."
Senior midfielder Ryan Hantverk said that the Minutemen take pride in the fact that they practice around snow, sleet and freezing temperatures when many other top teams have the benefit of warm temperatures. In fact, UMass started practice on what was -- at that point, the coldest day of the winter -- and the Minutemen wouldn't have had it any other way.
"We do it every year," said Cannella. "We've been outside all but one day this year. We pride ourselves on dealing with the elements.
"Spring doesn't arrive when we want it to, so we need to make the adjustment and battle the elements."
Follow the Leader
UMass is led by a trio of experienced captains. The younger Minutemen will look for guidance from junior goalie Tim McCormack, senior defenseman Casey Rahn and senior midfielder Ryan Hantverk. But head coach Greg Cannella credits his entire senior class for taking the leadership of this team under their collective belt and running with it.
Defensemen Mael Walkowiak, Brett Newgaard, Travis Trispuka (who also plays football at UMass) and midfielder Mike Wilus are all seniors on this Minutemen squad hoping to turn last year's promising 8-6 record into something even better.
"They have to lead. Those aren't the expectations, those are the demands, "Cannella said. "Every year, we lean on our seniors to be good players and put the team first and their egos aside.
While the Minutemen will be relying heavily on the play of their experienced and upperclassmen defense and the returning scorers that will help lead the offense, UMass will also be looking for plenty of production out of its freshmen class. Two freshmen, in particular, will be called upon early: Ryan Izzo and Connor Mooney.
Izzo, a Massachusetts native, is one of the best high school football players to ever touch the gridiron in the Bay State. He finished his career with more than 6,300 rushing yards and finished his career as the state's all-time leading scorer with 722 points. He's pretty darn good at lacrosse, too. The midfielder was a perennial All-Scholastic at Walpole High School and was named to the All-ESPN Rise Team after his senior season.
"Ryan (Izzo) is someone we expect to contribute solely through his excellent athleticism and speed," Cannella said. "Connor Mooney is an all around good player with a good sense of the game.
"They're definitely the two freshmen with the best chance of making an impact."