Seeing Maroon: Who’s up for a challenge?

Published: 1/11/2021 6:22:39 PM
Modified: 1/11/2021 6:22:17 PM

Conference play is where you find out just what your team is made of, and both the UMass hockey and women’s basketball teams have chances to build on their strong starts to the season this week as they take on the top competition in their respective leagues.

The hockey team squares off against a pair of ranked squads, first against No. 16 Providence on Wednesday after a Hockey East schedule shuffle. That’s followed by a massive home-and-home series with No. 2 Boston College over the weekend.

It’ll be UMass’ first showdown with the Friars this season, while it has already faced off with the Eagles twice, dropping both games.

The Minutemen are in firm control of first place in Hockey East with 29 points on the season, holding a distant lead over second-place Northeastern (18 points). BC sits in third place with 17 points while Providence is in fourth with 15 points, so a big week could go a long way to securing that top seed in the Hockey East tournament.

There’s a good chance UMass will see these two teams down the road during the postseason. It’ll be a strong litmus test of just how good the Minutemen are. They’ve won seven straight contests, scoring at least four goals in each game. Simply put, UMass’ offense is firing on all cylinders at the moment.

To come out with wins, it’ll need continued offensive production out of the blue line. After a win over UNH last week, Minutemen coach Greg Carvel pointed out that Matthew Kessel and Zac Jones are the lone defensemen to find the back of the net this season, so getting some production from an unexpected player on the back end could go a long way toward keeping pace with potent BC and Providence offenses.

I’ll be interested to see if UMass continues to have success against Eagle goalie Spencer Knight. The sophomore returns after leading the USA National Junior Team to a gold medal over Canada last week, and despite coming out victorious in both meetings with UMass, he allowed three goals in both games against the Minutemen earlier this year.

On the hardwood, the UMass women’s team will tangle with VCU on Friday night and Richmond on Sunday, two of the top teams in the conference.

The Rams have won their last three games and have been a powerhouse in the Atlantic 10 the past few years, finishing runner-up in the last two conference tournaments. They were the preseason favorite to win the conference after returning three starters from a team that finished with the second-best record in the conference a season ago.

The Spiders are also a tough task, having won their last two conference games while posting a 5-3 mark on the season.

Like the hockey team, the Minutewomen are clicking on the offensive end of the floor. They sit second in the A-10 in scoring, averaging 71.9 points per game. Keeping the hot shooting going will be key to UMass making a statement to the rest of the conference this week, proving that its hot start in conference play isn’t a fluke, and that it is a team to be taken very seriously.

Rodgers in the spotlight

It’s nice seeing former Minutemen playing at the next level, and Indianapolis Colts rookie Isaiah Rodgers made a few splash plays in limited action during Saturday’s Wild Card round loss against the Bills.

Indianapolis drafted the UMass product in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, with Rodgers taking over the kick returner role in Week 4 and showing off his explosive speed that we all saw during his four years in Amherst.

The rookie nearly broke free on a kick return in the first quarter on Saturday, breaking past the first wave of defenders, hurdling another and attempting yet another hurdle, the second less successful than the first. Still, Rodgers set his team up near midfield with a great return.

Rodgers nearly made two huge plays on defense in the closing minutes of the second quarter. After starting corner Xavier Rhodes exited for a few plays with an injury, Rodgers was thrown into action on the outside. Not having played much on defense all year, Bills QB Josh Allen went right after Rodgers in the red zone. The rookie nearly made him pay for it, as the first time Allen targeted him he picked him off, but the play was called back as Indy jumped offsides.

The second time came just a few plays later, as Allen tried to get him on a post route in the end zone, but Rodgers had perfect coverage, dove at the ball and looked to have made yet another interception. He was unable to keep control to the ground.

The Bills scored a few plays later, and while I’m sure Rodgers would like to have the play back to fully make the catch, the fact he didn’t give up a reception on two targets in a big moment is impressive. I’ll be interested to see if Indy gives him more looks at corner next season.

Thomas Johnston is a Recorder sports reporter and UMass alum. He can be reached at tjohnston@recorder.com




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