This is Why We Fight

On this, the great drinking holiday of American culture known as Thanksgiving Eve, we here at the Fight Masspartment are thankful for so much. We are thankful, of course, for family, friends, prosperity, our respective mates, all that good stuff, etc. More importantly, though, we are grateful that we finally have a polished product to root for in Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen, even while the other two of the “big three” are firmly entrenched in rebuilding mode.

Not to get all apocalyptic on you all at such a festive time of year, but I’ve hinted for quite some time that I feel strongly that this season has some underlying importance beyond what meets the eye. We are in an era of great change in the college landscape. Conference realignment continues to separate the haves from the have nots. To borrow the most timely of pop culture metaphors, the FBS power conferences are the Capitol, and we’re basically District 12. And if we don’t do something quickly, we may be on the fast track to District 13. (Actually, I’m not sure how the third book plays out, nobody spoil it for me, I literally just got into this like a week ago. Also, sidebar – can we see the Hunger Games as a separate metaphor for instilling Euro soccer-style relegation into the conference landscape? Never mind, I just got lost in my own tangent. Moving on.)

What’s crucial at this juncture for UMass is that they’re in a relatively good spot. Despite struggles on the ice as we transition fully to the Mick era, the hockey team seems unlikely to go anywhere in what is at the very least one of the top 2 conferences in the sport, and adding UConn next year gives them a local rival who they can actually beat up on. Football has found itself in a more stable position than, say, staying in the FCS as it crumbles around them. Midweek #MACtion is a certified phenomenon, and for the moment, the MAC, anchored by Northern Illinois but with contributions from not-awful Ohio and Bowling Green and Buffalo and the like, is a solid step above laughing-stock territory. The awful attendance question has been sidestepped by a good-enough year, and the return to campus next year should be a big help, as Gillette is relegated to the higher-end opponents while the stadium upgrades and time off will bring people back to McGuirk. (Not to mention an improved team! Right, Charley? Right?)

As for basketball? These are crucial times. With the breakoff of the Big East, everyone seems to be waiting for the next big moves to materialize, namely what will happen to UConn and Cincinnati who are both unlikely to remain in the AAC forever. Meanwhile, the rumors swirling about more Big East poaching of teams like Dayton and Saint Louis, or even (gasp) VCU.

These are uncertain times, but what’s not uncertain is that the teams in the have-not conferences are on display. (I could really easily tie this into that Hunger Games metaphor what with the Tributes showing off for the sponsors, but I’d rather Marty Peretz not have to revoke the nice words he said about my writing so I’ll stop now.) A year or two of success in these uncertain times can be all it takes for a program to hop up to the next level. UMass sold its recent FCS success to the MAC to buy their upgrade. Schools like Xavier and Butler have turned timely success in recent years into their tickets to the next level, and the rumors on VCU (which, remember, wasn’t much of anything before Shaka Smart came to town five years ago) and Saint Louis (which has made the NCAA’s six times since 1954) are further signs that this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business.

Am I suggesting that UMass will get invited to the Big East with a Sweet 16 run this season? Not exactly. What I’m saying is that this is the time when you need to put your program in the absolute best position to succeed, come whatever may in the college sports landscape in the next few years. A return trip to the tourney in March with a couple of wins in the Dance would not only help the team’s athletic image and standing in the area immediately, but coupled with the construction of the Champions Center, it would help our recruiting prospects for the immediate future too to help make this good feeling sustainable, not just a flash in the pan.

So you’re damn right we’re grateful. Grateful that, in this uncertain time, DK, Chaz and the gang have given us something to root for. Now go out there and enjoy yourselves, and we’ll see you after the weekend.

– Max

Hiiiiiighwaaaaay Tooooo theeeee Lalanne-ger Zoooooone!!!

So this is pretty neat, eh?

UMass is the #24 team in the land after a trio of hard-fought wins over quality, if not world-beating, competition at the Charleston Classic. Central to all of the wins was the continued emergence of Cady Lalanne as – sorry, there’s no other adequate sports cliche – an absolute beast, the best-case scenario we all envisioned for him when he first burst onto the scene his freshman year with flashes here or there. Mind you, we’re UMass fans, so we’re not used to seeing guys turn that occasional flash of brilliance here or there into something stellar. Yet here we are, with three guys legitimately doing that exact thing with Cady and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Carter and Putney. Then you throw in the two transfer guards who have both been solid from their first minute in the maroon-and-white, an adequate bench crew in Davis, Bergantino and Esho, and a stable of talented freshmen waiting in the wings for the first chance to jump in should anyone bite the injury bullet (oh UMass pls don’t let that happen btw k thx). And maybe biggest of all, you have Derek Kellogg looking at confident and comfortable at the helm as we’ve seen him yet. Granted, having his full complement of weapons and three fifth-year seniors in his starting lineup can’t hurt that cause, but just the same, he’s actually been coaching circles around his counterparts all year long now and that hasn’t always been the case. 

What does this formula provide? Why, UMass’s first national ranking in college basketball in 15 years, of course. And damn doesn’t it just feel like the best feeling ever? Yeah, UMass has cracked the top five in hockey in my eight years of following the program, and men’s lacrosse was even #1 in the very recent past, but those sports don’t draw eyeballs the way hoops and football do, and lordy are we ever far from the top 25 in the latter. (But I’ll save that for a future post. This is a fun positivity post which is why I am also going to hold off on addressing the on-ice disaster we’ve been subjected to the past few weeks.) Being ranked in lax or even hockey gets you on the scrolling scorebar on ESPNU, maybe, if you’re lucky, between women’s hoops, fencing, and Quidditch.

Being ranked in men’s basketball, on the other hand, gets you into the big show, as silly as it sounds. Every single major sports outlet shows top-25 scores, and most radio news recaps will mention them. Monday, UMass was the #3 story on ESPN.com’s right-hand scrollbar and dominated the actual write-up for the historic return. (We’re still the #1 story on the NCAA men’s basketball tab when you scroll over it!) Hell, even the Globe felt compelled to…errr, throw in a link to the AP story, buried under Red Sox hot stove coverage. But hey, you gotta start somewhere. And for the college basketball and sports media world as a whole, that little #24, as silly as it sounds, makes all the difference. Lots of teams start with undefeated runs. Missouri State is 5-0. So is Saint Mary’s. And Incarnate Word. Hell, just a few years back, even we were 7-0! And not a single shit was given that day, nor is it today about the other teams I mentioned. (Someone game Saint Mary’s a few votes in the coaches poll, but….yawn, what were we talking about again?) UMass’s 6-0 start this year stands out because its competition has been legitimate: four major conference teams, last year’s #2 RPI squad, and a better-than-advertised mid-major. The reward? Publicity, and plenty of it, and nothing could be better for recruiting.

With great power, of course, comes great sports cliche-ability, in the form of targets on your back, bulletin board material, trap games, blah, blah, blah. If any UMass team in my memory, in any sport, has the mental fortitude to not let fame, fortune, and platinum records go to their heads, this would be it. It starts next week in Ypsilanti of all places, against one of the only foes this team blew out last year. Eastern Michigan will have its students back from break, and the allure of the elusive ranked foe applies to the have-nots as well. UMass will have more tests against bigger names Providence, Florida State, and BYU before 2013 is done. (And they also play Northern Illinois and, who knows, maybe the Huskies will have Jordan Lynch suit up for the hoops team too, he’s just that good.) So the temptation to look past this game to BYU, for instance, is very real – and that makes this a great test for the team.

It just feels unfair to have to wait until then, especially if UMass ends up getting leapt-over by a few of the also-receiving-votes teams, but whatever. The drought is over, and I think you’ll agree this is as legit a team as this school has had in any of the Big Three major sports since Marcus Camby was here. Bask in the glow, because this is really happening and we’re along with you for the ride.

– Max

Haight to Say I Didn’t Tell You So (also, Chazketball vs. Nebrasketball)

I’ll admit things have been (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a bit busy of late, so I apologize we haven’t had a chance to weigh in on the recent happenings in UMass sports. Here’s a quick rundown:

– On Friday and Saturday, the hockey team defied all logic and played the vaunted BC offense very tightly, Mac Haight (whom I wrote about a month ago would definitely be the 3rd stringer all year and would likely not see any ice time) won all of our hearts with a serviceable, damn-near-great at times pair of performances, and UMass played both games to 2-2 ties. Of course, they only got one point out of it, thanks to some Bunyon Magic inventing a new exciting rule change that allows for the overturning of an offsides call. Was Power ultimately offsides? Sure, after seeing the replay. But it was the kind of bang-bang play that happens all season long in the Hockey East conference slate, so it’s nice to know that BC was able to get a point out of the weekend on a play that has now been confirmed to be non-reviewable. There is now approximately a 405% chance that UMass will proceed to lose a game this year on a goal that is offsides that they will not be able to review. Book it.

Honestly, though, the Minutemen had their chances to bury backup netminder Brian Billett and a BC team that, as they so often do, didn’t put forth a full 60-minute effort against UMass. The sad truth is, UMass has played the most conference games already at 7, and have frustratingly little to show for it. Vermont presents an opportunity to turn things around against another middling team, but – again, this is sounding like a broken record – it’s not always as easy as “hey, they played super-well against one of the best teams in the country so of course if they play like that they’ll beat the bad teams.” That said, between the supposedly-recovering Mastalerz and the competent Haight, we’re comforted in the knowledge that we won’t see Wakaluk again in a meaningful game until he shows he can actually handle the spotlight. So there’s that.

Let’s move on to the more fun thing on the docket: UMass football hahahaha no. Basketball moved to 3-0 with a workmanlike home victory over Youngstown State, the second-best of the three teams they’ve faced this year, and the buzz is in the air. All of a sudden, you’re hearing things like “receiving votes” and “underrated” and “likely tournament team” from various sources. Swell.

Now the Minutemen face what has been their undoing in the previous two hyped seasons: the infamous Preseason Tournament in a Strange Venue During the Day With Basically Nobody Present Against a Pretty Good Set of Teams, trademark pending. Luckily, they get it out of the way this year before Thanksgiving, so I don’t have to tell the same family members for the third year in a row how good my alma mater is going to be this year as they promptly get stomped. To be fair, I have a level of confidence in this team that I didn’t have the last two times around. The Penguins game wasn’t exactly the wild rout it appeared to be on paper when the schedule was announced, but in Kellogg’s defense, YSU actually looks like a pretty solid small-conference foe who could easily roll to a low-20s win total and an RPI in the low top 100. (You know, unlike a certain other school in Massachusetts which will be lucky to win 10 games this year at the rate they’re going.) There was some good that came from it, though – Putney’s slam at the end of the game has gone much further than I ever expected in generating buzz for the team. Hey, I’ll take it, even if when it happened I wasn’t really watching YSU’s press and figured it was an unnecessary garbage-time showboating act. 

Nebrasketball is up next, and they come into Charleston 3-0 by blowing out a trio of really bad teams. (Sorry, Dunk City minus its mastermind doesn’t count as a quality foe). Like UMass, the Huskers have played all of their games at home (TD Garden is a home, if you didn’t notice) and that home is the shiny new Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln, to which I want to go to there someday. So it’ll be an adjustment for both teams to play in unfamiliar territory in front of a largely-empty venue. There’s been some talk about UMass generating energy by feeding off the crowd, but I’d say Nebraska may even see more of this effect given that they’ve played to sellout crowds in their first three games whereas UMass hasn’t even played a home night game yet and has drawn a bit more sparsely.

The Huskers are led in scoring by guards Ray Gallegos and Deverell Biggs, both of whom were suspended for the first two games but who put up 18 and 17 points respectively in their last game against SC State. It’s hard based on that body of work to get a good gauge on who Nebraska really is, which is scary, but they’re also the preseason pick to finish dead last in the Big Ten. In other words, this is a win on paper. But remember, so was last year’s game against a Providence team with six scholarship players available, and that was nearly a disaster. The key on Thursday is for UMass to separate themselves from last year’s shortcomings. They must see the opportunity presented here, to not only add another major-conference foe to their resume, but to get that all-important meeting with New Mexico on Friday afternoon. The goal this year is to not sleep on anyone. We’ll soon see how that goes against the Huskers.

-Max

BC Preview: They Come in Like A Wreeeeeeecking Baaaaaaaallllllllll

While we eagerly await the Most Eagerly-Anticipated Sporting Event Ever to Feature Youngstown State, we’d be remiss to forget about tomorrow night’s clash on the ice between the BC Fightin’ Gaudreaus and yoooooouuuuurrrrrr Miiiiinute….huh? Guys? Where’d everybody go? Come baaaaaack I’m not doooooone!

Truly, the task ahead is daunting. BC’s much-touted freshman class has come in and decided to just skip clear over the whole “adjustment phase” freshmen usually have to go through. Up and down the stat sheet, they’ve gotten some great production from their latest stable of talented stud players. Again. Sigh. Let’s be grateful their other “big two” programs will never see anything remotely similar to this level of competency on the recruiting front, though York, bless his classy little heart, just re-upped through 2020. This, to the uninitiated, is the equivalent of the groundhog coming out during a total solar eclipse and dying immediately. Seven more years (at least!) of this shit. And we were hoping he’d retire due to those eye problems. Hahahahaha kill me.

But of course, we can’t forget the headliner, junior sensation Johnny Gaudreau, whose name is pronounced “good ROW” for a reason because he’s good and he’ll probably score a multitude of goals in a row in the next two nights. His nine goals and nine assists are both tops on the team, though he’s had plenty of help from cohorts Bill Arnold and Kevin Hayes, but there’s no question he’s the runaway favorite for the Hobey Baker.

In goal for the Eagles, the ace has been the freshman who will call you when he’s soft, Thatcher Demko We assume Steve Mastalerz is a no-go for this weekend’s games, though the last somewhat-optimistic indicator from Mark Chiarelli in the Daily Hampshire Gazette said Mick is calling him “day to day” so who the hell knows. We’re going to go ahead and prepare for the worst and assume we’ll be seeing either the embattled Wakaluk or the slightly-less-embattled Haight. Maybe even one for each game.

Look, UMass has played a lot of great games against the Eagles in recent years, including a triumphant win last season at the Heights for the first time in seemingly forever. But nothing we’ve seen from either freshman gives much confidence that either will turn in the kind of stellar performance that has been instrumental in most recent wins over BC. Then again, sports have a funny way of handling the type of situation where a team that just lost by nine goals faces a team that won by 11. (That has to be a combined record for teams going into a game against each other, in terms of margin of their previous games, right?) Add that to the odd start time (to accommodate Saturday’s finale at Gillette for the football team) and that one time when Kevin Garnett said that anything was possible, and you have a recipe for…probably just a closer loss than everyone expects. But UMass, the team in HEA that has already left the most points on the table in conference play, can ill-afford many more 0-fer weekends like the last one.

Fascinatingly, the game is being marketed as an “Operation 8K,” as the team pulls out all the stops with free t-shirts and other marketing resources thrown at a game that would likely draw a significant crowd regardless (we’ve been harping about this for days and it’s getting old so whatever). You’d think after how the last home game went, we’d be lucky to draw half that many fans, but this might actually work given that many of the students are likely tone-deaf to just how poorly the last few games went for this team. On the downside, you just know many groan-inducing “Seven Nation Army” and “Fuck BC” moments are in store, and if things get out of hand early, the number of maroon seatbacks visible will be many.

Hey, at least they won’t be wearing the camo jerseys again. There’s nowhere to go but up.

– Max

Weekend Review: So Shines A Good Deed in a Weary World

Back up, if you will, to Saturday night.

The UMass hockey team was in ruins. Shambles. It was curtains, I say. The previous night’s 4-1 loss, which we had the misfortune of taking in in person with my friend from work and Matt’s girlfriend, both of whom are UNH alumni, was (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) one continuous gut punch. The Wildcats got two goals from some nobody defenseman, both against the grain of play, one coming midway through a second period in which the Minutemen controlled the puck for pretty much the entire first nine minutes of play and just couldn’t put one by DeSmith. UMass then survived a grueling six minutes of three consecutive minor penalties, each more #dubious than the last, only to surrender a predictable cheapie early in the third. They reeled not only for the remainder of that game, but the entire 9-0 bloodbath in Amherst that ensued the next night. Let’s throw that one in the annals under the title “The Camo Game” and never speak of camouflaged uniforms as long as we live, thanks.

Hockey’s role at this point in rallying our spirits through another tough rebuilding year on the gridiron was looking like a lost cause. A few weeks ago, we talked at length about how the Minutemen losing Kevin Boyle to Coach Mick’s offseason cuts didn’t seem so scary given the comparable numbers Mastalerz was putting up. What we failed to realize is that his next-in-line, Alex Wakaluk, would look so woefully unprepared for D1 college hockey. Sure, his teammates haven’t exactly inspired confidence in front of him, but that’s two consecutive disastrous starts for him. Faring slightly better was third-stringer Mac Haight, who was at least serviceable in relief, but let’s not mince words. If Mastalerz is out for an extended period of time, right now it’s hard to see this team winning games with either freshman in net. All the good feels from sweeping Michigan State just went out the window. Now, if one of these two steps up and shocks the world on Thursday and/or Friday against BC, well, that’s another story. We frankly would be less surprised if Johnny Gaudreau (just give him the goddamn Hobey already geez) were to put up 7 goals this weekend. It’d be nice to be wrong on this, boys. Make us be wrong about this.

Anyway, so that’s the grimness we were looking at before 3:15 pm on Sunday. 

Exit bad feels. Enter the FanChaztic Voyage™.

In front of a largely partisan TD Garden crowd, the UMass men’s basketball team, 2013-2014 edition, made its triumphant debut and set Superfraud Nation aflame with the furious butthurt of a thousand dead Baldwins (the mascot, not the acting family…well, I guess either way). There were some brief nervous moments early on, and when BC led by 9 with about 16 minutes left, the overwhelming feeling of dread began to creep in again, a la last year against Harvard. But luckily, UMass didn’t wait until the last minute to steal one against a cross-state rival this time. Instead, they took complete reigns of the game and ran the Eagles square off the court with a huge run, sparked as always by the indomitable Chaz and a completely rebuilt Cady Lalanne. Cady was in full beast-mode on both ends of the floor and his offseason workout regimen has clearly paid huge dividends. BC had absolutely no answers for him, much to the chagrin of the tens of fans who made the arduous journey all the way from a few T-stops down the Green Line to the game. (But okay, Coach Donahue, they’d show up if it was Harvard smoking you instead, right?)

But we’re UMass fans. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s really not a stretch given what we’ve been with, especially with this specific program in recent years. Big, season-altering wins are usually followed by uninspired efforts and/or wasted opportunities. And for a moment there down the stretch in today’s matinee follow-up against SEC contender LSU, it looked like that’s exactly what was going to happen. UMass had built a 13-point lead early in the second half, withstood a mostly Cady-less first half thanks to some overzealous foul-calling on both sides, and had managed to get Johnny O’Bryant III, the unstoppable force/immovable object on the Tigers’ frontline, into serious foul trouble. Yet LSU managed to rip off a run to close the gap to a single possession on numerous occasions. When Cady fouled out late in the second half, at the hands of the aforementioned O’Bryant no less, it looked like the gas had run out of the tank. This was going to best described as yet another “moral victory” where UMass battled hard, but ultimately circumstances/refs/DK’s coaching inexperience/Obama/Jared Antman’s distracting rainbow afro/insert other excuse here caused the wheels to finally come off the wagon.

This is not that UMass team.

The Minutemen, remarkably, buckled down on defense, hit their free throws, and pounced on just about every loose ball they could get their hands on. The symbol of the game will be Derrick Gordon diving into the WMUA radio booth on a 50-50 ball and deflecting it off an LSU player to keep a possession alive. Golly is this kid something. The shooting numbers haven’t been pretty, but DG does so many things on and off the scoresheet that, with all due respect to Morgan and Riley (both probably better pure shooters than Gordon), have been missing in recent years. That we get the rest of this year and two more out of him is a treat.

The final moments of the game weren’t without their nervousness. LSU had a couple of chances to steal this one with a sudden application of HAVOC-level pressure in the final minute, something Kellogg needs to address between now and our February visit from VCU. But these guys clearly have another level of, I dunno, “it?” that we’ve only seen flashes of in past years. I feel like I’m just begging for the Penguins of Youngstown State to come in on Sunday and ruin everything, but I’ll say it – it’s amazing to finally see a UMass team, albeit so early in the season, actually live up to preseason expectations from the get-go. The Charlestown tournament next week will surely be a measuring stick of just what this team is capable of, especially given that recent years have been marred by shoddy performance is these early-season events. But just for once, and I’ll be elaborating in a coming article on this further, it feels like a team at this school grasps just how important it is to succeed now in these uncertain times of radical conference realignment. Players like Chaz don’t come around in Amherst every year, and this is surely the finest supporting cast he’s had around him. 

Please, oh please let us just be right about this one, basketball gods.

– Max

UNH Preview: Live Free or Tie

Sorry for the lack of wrap-up on last week’s Maine series, which fit the Halloween theme in the sense that nobody bothered to show up leaving the Mullins as a spooooooooky hauuuuunted hooooooouse ooooooooohhhh. You know what else was scary? Steve Mastalerz, as in scary GOOD hahahahhaa alright that’s enough of that. So UMass “wins” the season series with Maine, by winning one out of the four games between the teams this weekend by a single goal, thanks to the first two being essentially exhibitions. To be fair, the Minutemen put a buttload of shots on net in the two games at home, stymied at times by the play of Maine netminder Stephen Ouelette, and the puck-possession game and forecheck were on point.

UMass now turns its attention to Maine’s neighbors, the current state of residence of the writers of this blog, to take on the hated and imaginatively-named Wildcats of New Hampshire in a home-and-home. Surprisingly, the Wildcats, ranked highly in the preseason for some reason, have stumbled out to a 1-5-1 start. Yes, their schedule has been rough, with games against the likes of Michigan, RPI, and Lowell, but even so, the Wildcats have historically been a fast-starting team. Alas, not so much this year, but you have to think they view a two-gamer against the Minutemen as an opportunity to kickstart their season. And they’d better start now, because as you’ve heard a billion times now from every Hockey East pundit and fan in the universe, the 20-game conference schedule makes EVERY WEEKEND THE MOST SUPAR IMPORTANT!!!!11 Haha but really, they’re fucked if we sweep them this weekend. Which we won’t, but that’s fine.

Actually, if anything, the Minutemen are due to win one at the Whit. UMass last won a game there…drumroll please…my freshman year, 3-2 on October 26, 2006. For some sports context, the Celtics were starting Sebastian Telfair and Wally Szczerbiak, Justin Verlander was the Rookie of the Year, and young rookie Phil Kessel had just begun lacing them up for the Bruins. So yeah, it’s been a long time. Here is a season by season breakdown of the Minutemen’s trips to the Granite State:

06-07: W 3-2, L 5-1

07-08: L 5-3, (HE Quarterfinals: L 4-1, L 7-2)

08-09: T 1-1, L 3-2 (OT)

09-10: L 7-2

10-11: L 3-0, T 3-3

11-12: L 7-3

12-13: T 2-2, L 4-0

For those keeping track at home, that’s 0-9-3, with the last two ties both coming on last-minute UNH goals to snatch non-defeat from the jaws of, well, defeat. The last two years, UMass, in spite of overall struggles, has managed to crack one of its many houses-of-horrors (BC last year, BU the year before). No time like the present to snap it, right? Alas, being that this is UMass we’re talking, you almost sort of have to set “three point weekend” as the absolute best case scenario here, and even that feels like a stretch given that this is such a do-or-die weekend for UNH.

Let’s look at the Wildcats on paper. Their two go-to guys at the front are Nick Sorkin (no relation to Andy “the UMass ref” Sorkin) and Kevin Goumass Goumas, whose name makes Matt’s “GOUMASS” NH license plate look like an endorsement of the Wildcat senior forward and current leader in career points (an even 100). They each bring three goal, three assist seasons into the fray. UNH’s strength, of course, is their defensive corps. Their two draft picks are senior Eric Knodel (2 G/3 A/5 P, +2) and sophomore Brett Pesce (1 G/0 A/1 P, -3), and junior Trevor van Riemsdyk (1 G, 5 A, 6 P, +4, and yes, he’s James’s brother) is tied for the team lead in points. Dick Umile always seems to have dynamic guys on the blue line who can contribute offensively. UNH does, of course, have to deal with some key departures. Noted UMass-killer John Henrion has graduated, as has fellow 15-goal scorer Austin Block. Defensive stalwarts Brett Kostolansky and Connor Hardowa are gone as well. Grayson Downing, their third-leading scorer last year as a sophomore, has just a goal and an assist so far this year, but that just indicates that he’s due. In net, ace Casey DeSmith has been a far cry from his 2.04 GAA campaign of a year ago. He’s 0-4 with a 3.02 GAA and .891 SV% in five games, while senior backup Jeff Wyer has let just six goals through in three games, and has been in goal for both of UNH’s non-losses so far. That said, I’d expect DeSmith to be in net for both games unless UMass roughs him up in Durham, which is about as likely as me becoming mayor of Toronto and smoking crack. Others have done it, but it’s still somehow impossible.

My bold prediction? Both teams win at home. Ho hum.

Sidebar: Look. UMass, I love you…but you’re bringing me down. First, you want me to pay for separate packages for hockey and basketball when the issues with the quality of both feeds is already in question. Then, you do this to us:

from @UMassHockeyEq earlier today, and yes for serious

 

UMass, what are you doing. Gimme your keys. You’re drunk.

Seriously, I get the whole “pay homage to the troops” and all that, so the red-white-and-blue motif fits just fine. But holy god almighty these are ugly. First of all, have you ever seen a camouflage uniform before that looks so completely blocky and fake? It looks like it was literally drawn in MS Paint and stretched over the surface area of a jersey. Seriously. Who saw this and thought it looked good? This is something that would get laughed at nationwide if anyone outside of New England and the Midwest actually cared about a sport that isn’t college football. Thankfully, the ridicule will be kept to just New England in this case for the time being. But we deserve it. Why not just put the flag-colored logo on our standard uniforms? It would clash a bit, but certainly not as badly as this monstrosity. In fact, the more I look at it, the more it started to be clear. We’re not saluting the troops at all! Nay, the nerds have finally won, and we’re finally paying tribute to them and, specifically, this:

 

more explosive than our power play!!11

 

That’s right bitches. It’s Minecraft night, this Saturday at the Mullins Center. The UNH Wildcats will take on the UMass Skating Minecraft Cactus Dude Things (apparently they’re called Creepers, which sounds about right). All for the troops, somehow. Sigh.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Chazketball has creeped up on us, by the way, so I’m hoping to spend some downtime Saturday to put together a season preview before we trek down to the Garden for the showdown with BC. See you there.

– Max

Maine Preview 2: Again This Time, But Better

UMass got swept over the past weekend by Maine in hockey. UMass football also lost, at home, to a winless Eastern Michigan team. Here is a graphical simulation of how it all went down:

But hey, look, listen. UMass alum Ben Cherington also won the World Series, or rather his Red Sox did, for all of mankind forever. So that has to be a good omen going into this weekend, right?

Listen, I’ll keep this short and sweet. Last weekend was no good. This weekend needs to be better. UMass actually played quite well for four of the six periods, but were doomed by an awful first period Friday and second period Saturday, then a dumb penalty at the end of regulation Friday did them in in the close game of the two. (Didn’t like the officiating in game 1, for the record, but what else is new in Hockey East. The OT penalty there was no excuse for though.) On positive notes, more good play from the second line, Pigozzi got a goal, and overall I like our offense’s chances against this same team on the Mullins Center ice and with Mastalerz in net for both games.

These two games this weekend, as I said last week, are far more important. Let’s be honest, neither team is likely to be looking at Pairwise standings this season, so every Hockey East point is critical. A sweep this weekend would go miles toward erasing the bitter taste of last weekend. End of story. I’ll have more hockey-ish analysis after the games are in the book, I swear.

Oh, and beat Northern Illinois. Or at least hold them under 70. That’d be swell.

– Max, of Fright Mass

 

Maine Preview: So Many Miles, So Few Conference Points

After a pair of tough losses on the road against nationally-ranked Hockey East teams (including Lowell, although nobody else seems to have any trouble beating them this year curiously), the Minutemen proved to us last week that they can beat, and even roll, over a bad team on home ice. Now they head back on the road for a much weaker foe than they opened against, with some confidence under their belt, for some conference pl—I’m sorry, what’s that you say? These are more nonconference games against a Hockey East team and we’re still stuck in last place, technically, for at least one more week. Well alrighty then.

The Minutemen actually had a pretty good stretch of dominance over the Black Bears while I was at UMass, but unfortunately that has subsided in the last few years as Maine has gone 5-2-3 in the last 10 meetings. Last year they tied in the only meeting in Orono, 2-2, then split a pair in Amherst, with a 2-0 Maine win followed by a 5-2 UMass triumph. This will start four straight meetings between the two teams, and the last time they played four consecutive games against one another was…oh yeah, that’s right: the 2006-2007 season, when they met for the final two of the regular year, then the last two home playoff games at the Bill. That was my freshman year, so obviously it’s been all downhill from there, but I recall a good time being had by all. The name “Wilson” was tossed around just a couple times.

So far this year, former UMass assistant Red Gendron has the Black Bears off to a 1-2-0 start, with two losses at St. Lawrence followed by a 2-1 win at home against Bentley. Not exactly inspiring stuff. Junior Stu Higgins has two goals (both in just one game!), but nobody stands out on offense in that small a sample. Senior Marc Anthoine brings most of the returning offense, with 18 career goals, including one this year (though his plus/minus is a team-worst -5). Devin Shore was the team’s leading scorer last year, at six goals and 20 assists, but he’s been held off the board thus far this year. This is a young bunch of Black Bears, with a lot of unfamiliar names now that noted punk Joey Diamond won’t be walking through that door. Mike Cornell, one of their better defensemen, is also gone. Really, the anchor that Maine retains is the senior between the pipes, Martin Ouelette, who brings a career 2.69 GAA and .904 save percentage to the table. Then again, it wouldn’t be the most shocking thing ever to see senior backup Dan Sullivan get a start, especially given that these games don’t count in the conference standings and, since Maine will not be watching the Pairwise rankings with any sort of intent this season, these games thus carry much less meaning.

UMass, of course, is in a similar boat for the time being. But an impressive showing in these next two weekends against a team in a similar rebuilding phase could be the springboard towards the “shock the world” season we’ve all been waiting for them to accidentally meander into for years now. Or, if nothing else, at least make us not look like doofuses in front of national TV audiences on Friday (NBC Sports) and Saturday (FCS Atlantic…opposite the World Series…you know what, forget I said anything). Likewise, if Wakaluk found himself making his first career start this weekend, giving Mastalerz a breather in anticipation of the much more important series at the Bill next week, don’t be surprised. That’ll probably happen on Saturday, which is one of those tree falling in a forest conundrums because it’s hard to picture much of a turnout at Alfond (or Mullins, to be fair) during a Red Sox World Series game, but honestly, that might not be the worst way to break him in.

Anyway, it’s time to get some sleep, in my sadness over the Sox losing tonight I’ve stumbled upon an MTV reality show which I swear is being hosted by a third Marcou brother. Halp. (Seeya after the weekend.)

– Max

The Fight Mass Travelogue: Amherst, MA

The Fight Mass Travelogue (tentative name until we think of something better) is a new feature we are rolling out as the season goes along. Each edition, we will look at one of the fabulous places we’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Traveling to road venues is one of the most enjoyable things about being a sports fan, particularly in college sports. Plus, we’re craft beer snobs and we love to share good beer spots with the people. This is in no way a direct ripoff of Fear the Triangle’s Road Trip section. Anyway, let’s kick it off with our home sweet home, in honor of Homecoming, and go from there.

The Setting: We may be juuuuust a little biased, but there’s always going to be a spot in our hearts for the Pioneer Valley. With all the campus construction that started in our heyday starting to come together, the overall level of architecture on the campus has been dramatically improved, and there’s more where that came from in the form of a new Comm/Journalism building right in the heart of campus. With the ComCol dorms and new Rec Center in place, the area directly around the Mullins Center is as vibrant as ever, and it’ll look even better with the Champions Center completed. Downtown is quaint and neat with lots of cool shops and restaurants, though the bar scene is admittedly a letdown. But hey, this is a pahhhhtttyy schoooool keeehhhhd. The students, on and off campus, still throw some of the most insane house parties you’ll ever see, and lately the number of shitty incidents with law enforcement seems to be on the decline. The campus population has learned that you don’t need to be a “zoo” to have a good time.

The Venues: The Mullins Center, two decades later, is beginning to show its age somewhat compared to the shine of the new or recently-renovated buildings in the conference, but still holds up well in terms of atmosphere. This year’s changes to the student seating for hockey creates a more intimidating and cohesive unit. Of course, as we’ve complained about pretty much since the first day of the blog, our students are probably last in Hockey East in terms of things like “actually wearing the home team’s colors/gear to games,” “cohesive chants,” “maintaining traditions,” “chants that aren’t just ‘fuck (name of other school)'”, and so forth. But there’s potential now, at least. Our basketball student section is a lot better, and personally I think the overall atmosphere for hoops, particularly from the non-student side, is a lot louder and more conducive to a home court advantage. Not saying that having a band there is a factor, of course. Still, I wish they’d allow, say, ABC to sell beer in the Bill. Yes, I know, our reputation and whatnot, but if we stuck to a cool local product which most of the Barstool crowd would never drink anyway, the rest of us could responsibly have a good time. This is mostly because I can’t stand that Lowell Beerworks sells its wares in the Tsongas, which is filled with Lowell students who by all accounts are just as drunk and abrasive. Alas.

Other venues on campus include the Cage, which is still a fun gimmicky place for the hoops team to occasionally play (but which is way too small and hot and how in the world did they play there on a regular basis anyway?), McGuirk Stadium, which maintains a certain high-schooly charm but which will undoubtedly benefit from facelifts both current and (hopefully) future, and Garber Field, home of the national powerhouse lacrosse team and a swell place to get a good view of the game in spite of being in the shadow of the ugliest building on Earth, Tobin Hall.

Best Food: Antonios, of course. Best single-slice pizza place ever. It’ll change your world. Other solid options are the Wings at the Hangar, which you can now get by themselves at the Big Y Plaza (but lol why) and the big ol’ burritos at Bueno Y Sano. I’m also coming around on White Hut for uber-unhealthy late night snacks, though it pales in comparison to the old grill at the Springfield location. The food at ABC unfortunately seems to have gone downhill since they moved into their new site, just as the quality of their beer list has dramatically improved. In the Bill, the Baby Berk burgers are still a great option, though I wish they still had the food truck right outside to make them to order.

And let’s not forget about RJ Stables, the Official Fight Mass Breakfast of Choice in the Amherst area, or the fact that UMass dining has climbed up the rankings to be one of the best college dining experiences in the country – particularly with the newly-renovated Hampshire.

Best Beer: This is a tough one. I think overall the best venue from a beer-and-food standpoint has to be the Hangar. There’s always something for everyone on the beer list, it’s close as shit, and you can get a huge meal for a big group (wings and nachos!) for a reasonable price. And it’s not quite as packed as it used to be, thanks to the new secondary location to draw away the just-wings crowd. As mentioned before, ABC has a massive selection between their own quality brews and a much-improved guest taplist since they moved into the old Gold’s Gym, and it’s right across from the Hangar. It’s also arguably a better place to watch a game on TV, and easier to navigate, so you really can’t go wrong with either on the beer front (the food is hit or miss though). Taking ABC’s old spot downtown is the High Horse, which gets a bad rap for its dark and moody atmosphere but which carries the best beer selection downtown by a moonshot. The Moan & Dove is a little further away in South Amherst, and has one of the best beer lists in New England IF NOT THE WORLD. But the hipster vibe is a little off-putting to the more casual beer-drinkers (or non-beer-drinkers) in the crowd, and apparently they don’t take out-of-state IDs anymore, no matter how obviously the bearer is of age, so that takes this place off the table for Mass ex-pats like the writers of this blog.

So that’s how we’re gonna run these. I’ll also let Matt have his say whenever he wants to. We’ll probably do one of these after the weekend about Orono if Matt and Derek don’t get eaten by aphids or whatever happens up there (I’ve already made the trip so I’ve got plenty to say anyway). Stay tuned and we’ll be putting these aside in a separate page once the next one goes up.

– Max

Weekend Review: MickDouble

Hey kids, remember that one time when UMass won two games in a weekend?

They managed it just once last season. OnceIt was in the Ledyard Bank Classic when the Minutemen had their only two-win weekend of Mick’s inaugural campaign, besting Bemidji State and the Dartmouth Fightin’ Klumps Big Green. It was the first of the team’s two winning streaks, each of two games, the entire season. Seriously.

What about the last time our boys won two games against the same squad in a weekend? You know, I didn’t either. So I hopped in the way-back machine and…well whaddya know. March 2010, the last two games of the season in our own inaugural campaign, up at good ol’ Alfond Arena. How long ago was that? I used a fucking LOST reference as the article title, that’s how long. That saved our season just long enough to push us into one of the seemingly dozens of soul-crushing, closely-fought two-game first-round hyphenated-adjective sweeps at Conte, but damn was it fun at the time.

Let’s keep going. When was the last time the Minutemen swept a two-gamer at home against one team? Yeah…that would be Maine as well. February 20-21 of ’09, a pair of 4-3 wins. Winning is fun! Let’s talk about winning some more.

Okay, no, you get the point. What the UMass hockey team accomplished this weekend may not be the most impressive thing in the history of college sports, or even that happened this weekend in college hockey. But it’s a damn fine start to the home slate for 2013-2014, in a year where any winning this team does can be safely filed under “prove people wrong.” Michigan State stumbled in battered, bruised, and in a few notable cases, barred from competing. But this is still a member of the Big Ten, nay, the B1G!!!!1, damnit! To see what was, frankly, such a dominant display, on homecoming opening weekend in front of two rabid screaming student crowds no less, was exactly what the team needed to do to have any hopes of hooking onto the interest of the fickle student base.

Here’s three keys to the weekend that brought smiles to the faces of the Fight Mass gang.

1) The Power Play

One of UMass’s few strengths last year was their power play percentage, finishing 3rd in the conference in conversion percentage. With four tallies on Saturday, the team looks even better in this regard so far this year, despite losing 7 of the 31 goals in Carzo, Rowe and Allen. Moreover, and again we need to keep in mind that the Minutemen weren’t seeing all of the Spartans’ guns, the execution looks so much crisper than last year, with sustained, long possessions and a greater sense of general organization and attack.

2) The Second Line

We all knew that UMass would start the season knowing that if at any time they needed find offense, the GPS (Gracel-Pereira-Sheary) line would be a solid option. (I’ll go die now, thanks.) The bigger question, particularly with the Vatrano suspension, was who would fill in to pick up the slack, because we all remember what goes wrong with the offense concentrated into one line. Every time the trio of Pigozzi, Power, and Iacobellis took to the ice, good things seemed to be around the corner this weekend. The latter two each have a pair of power play goals already, and their aggressiveness, forechecking, and physicality gives the second line a complete changeup feel to the lightning-quick offensive prowess presented by the top line. Iacobellis looks so poised out there already for a freshman in particular, and if he avoids the beginners-luck style slump we’ve seen others have after impressive debuts (Mike Marcou and Rocco Carzo come to mind), that second line can be the difference-maker. Of course, it makes Vatrano’s absence hurt that much more.

3) The Students

Right from the start, I’ve been an advocate of the new endzone student seating. For one, I’ve always found the previous arrangement somewhat awkward, in a sense that the hardcore students tended to rally around the flag in the front of S and T, then everyone else sort of disbursed across the rest of that half of the rink. No cohesion or unity whatsoever. By focusing the students around the endzone, as seemingly every other school ever has discovered, the noise factor and intimidation for the visiting goalie increases exponentially.

As for the chants, it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, being behind the glass makes it much harder to hear the PA system. You could tell that freshmen comprised much of the section directly behind the goalie, because after UMass’s first home goal of the season they actually tried to sing “Seven Nation Army” (I wish this was a joke) before catching on to everyone else doing the Rock n Roll Part 2 chant. But aside from the occasional drunken homophobic hecklers (what else is new), there was no “fuck _____” which was a pleasant surprise. Moreover, even without Matty G on the mic, the students were rowdy and into the game the whole time, and the goalies’ mothers’ names were both spread well, leading to an awesome “Cheryl’s Tits” chant that was topical (breast cancer awareness month!). Kinks to work out? “Spartans swallow” was pretty lame and unoriginal, and jingling keys in a one-goal game with five minutes left is downright moronic. But overall, I see potential for this to work. B+ effort kiddos, and that’s a big improvement over years past.

 

All-in-all, if you (like most sane people) disregard the football team’s outing on Saturday, a very successful weekend. Pregame tailgating, sanctioned or otherwise, was a great time for which we thank the University for allowing everyone to partake in, though you have to assume football will resume that tradition next year when they return. And hey, we finally met @UMassLad and he turned out to be a pretty swell guy. Now, who was that last team UMass swept a home series with or a series overall with?

Oh right. The team we play for the next two weekends in a row. More to come on that. Meanwhile, enjoy the World Series. We sure will be.

-Max