Setbacks haven’t deterred UMass soccer ahead of NCAA Tournament showdown with Penn State

  • Ben Shepherd celebrates scoring a goal with Logan Brown against Hofstra this season. The UMass men’s soccer team will face Penn State in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Senior Yosuke Hanya led the Atlantic 10 and is tied for sixth in the nation with seven assists this season. The UMass men’s soccer team will face Penn State in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

  • Filippo Begliardi Ghidini ranked second on the UMass men’s soccer team with six goals this season.  The Minutemen will face Penn State in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. THOM KENDALL/UMASS ATHLETICS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/30/2021 6:32:26 PM

Graham Brenner had a good feeling when he saw Penn State pop into the NCAA Tournament bracket.

The UMass men’s soccer team’s junior defender was sitting in a campus lounge with his fellow Minutemen watching the selection show unfold. They were firmly on the bubble after a strong season in the Atlantic 10 and fresh off a 3-3 draw at No. 25 Virginia Tech.

“There’s feeling in the air that we were going to make it,” Brenner said. “When they called Penn State, I had a feeling they’re going to call our team next.”

They did, and UMass erupted in celebration like it had just scored a winning goal. The Minutemen — in their first NCAA Tournament since 2017 — will face the Nittany Lions in the second round Sunday in Greensboro, N.C. There are 36 teams in the tournament and four first-round games to fill out the Round of 32.

Penn State, the No. 14 team in the country, also received an at-large bid after reaching the Big 10 championship game.

“They’re chock full of talent. They’re well organized and well structured,” UMass coach Fran O’Leary said. “We’ve got our hands full.”

The Nittany Lions boast the second-best scoring average (2.083 goals per game), goals allowed (1.08) and winning margin in the Big 10. Their offense ranks 17th in the country. Three Penn State players made the all-Big 10 first team: forward Danny Bloyou, defender Brandon Hackenberg and midfielder Pierre Reedy. Hackenberg was selected 22nd overall in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft by Orlando City SC but returned to State College, Pa., for the spring season.

“We have a special team. We always knew we could compete with this team,” Brenner said. “We know when we go play these bigger schools that have these well-known soccer programs, they’re going to underestimate us, and we use that as our strength. Even if they’re a little more talented, we’re always willing to work harder.”

UMass (7-1-3) showed it could hang with the nation’s elite when it drew the Hokies in Blacksburg, Va. on April 17. Virginia Tech, which also qualified for the tournament, was coming off back to back shutouts against North Carolina and Notre Dame. The Minutemen struck first then rallied from a deficit once the Hokies responded.

“It was a real eye-opening experience for our guys, particularly early in the game,” O’Leary said. “I always say you’re looking to make deposits in your confidence bank. We didn’t know if we’d done enough to get in the tournament, but we came away a more confident side.”

Some of that belief comes from UMass knowing it can score on anyone. The Minutemen average 2.36 goals per game, good for 10th in the country. They haven’t been shut out all year. Freshman Alec Hughes led the Atlantic 10 with seven goals and 16 points, while Yosuke Hanya and Ben Shepherd tied for the conference lead with seven assists each. That mark ranked sixth in the nation.

“Attacking quality is one of the key components of our foundation,” Hanya said. “They’re always giving me options, they’re making runs behind the defense all the time. It makes it easier for me to make a pass.”

The Minutemen have also leaned on their adaptability to keep the offenses humming. If opponents want to press, UMass can pass through their lines and attack into spaces. Should the other team want to sit back, the Minutemen are comfortable holding possession and creating a quality chance.

“Good players have the ability to make decisions under pressure,” O’Leary said. “It’s identifying where the space is and looking to exploit and find opportunities.”

UMass also doesn’t back down if it takes an early hit. The Minutemen have come back to tie or win three games this season after allowing the opening goal. That resiliency comes, in part, from what they endured to have a season at all.

Men’s soccer is typically a fall sport, but the season was delayed to the spring due to COVID-19. Then just as UMass was finally beginning its preseason, the athletic department shut down as part of a campus-wide pause due to rising cases. The Minutemen kept at it with their own fitness programs.

“We’re used to setbacks,” Brenner said. “We know we can always come back.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.


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