Propelled by local talent, UMass Men’s Soccer wins league


Cameron Merritt

Members of the UMass men’s soccer team meet up for a team huddle (Cameron Merritt/Amherst Wire).

Cameron Merritt , Writer

AMHERST — Nine years ago, the University of Massachusetts Men’s Soccer team won the Atlantic 10 regular season title.

Nearly a decade later, propelled by a core of local players, some of whom grew up watching that very team, UMass has done it again.

The Minutemen, who ranked No. 25 nationally, secured the regular season A 10 title Wednesday after their title rival, Virginia Commonwealth University, fell 2-1 to St. Bonaventure. They now go into the conference tournament as the top seed, hosting a quarterfinal against Saint Louis Sunday afternoon.

The team boasts eight natives of western Massachusetts, including senior captains Alex DeSantis of Belchertown and Matt Mooney of East Longmeadow, and the team’s top goalscorer, freshman striker Davis Smith of Amherst.

For Head Coach Fran O’Leary, having this core of local talent has been terrific, from both a coaching and recruiting sense.

“It helps our cause if we can bring in the best local talent, and we’re very fortunate to have a lot of good local players, but they’re [also] terrific guys and you’ve seen them develop over the years,” O’Leary said. “They want to get better. There’s a hunger. There’s a pride in maybe being a local player playing for your local university and they’ve been great role models for UMass and the program.”

It is O’Leary’s third season at the helm of the UMass men’s soccer team. He has seen the team improve each year; something he attributes to the work of the entire coaching staff, the training staff and especially the players.

“They’ve worked hard from day one and this season is really a culmination of their efforts,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary was especially happy for the seniors, who stuck with the program through “not the funnest of days,” such as their 3-14-1 record as freshmen in 2014 and starting their sophomore season, the first under O’Leary, 1-10 before winning four of their last seven games to just make it to the tournament.

This season, the Minutemen finished 12-3-3 (6-1-1 in the A 10).

“The past three years that we’ve been with [O’Leary] we’ve all just been working hard and getting better every year, and I think it’s finally paying off this year,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis, who as a senior at Belchertown High School helped lead the Orioles to a state championship title, has been consistent for the Minutemen all year. He finished the regular season with eight goals, second only behind Smith’s nine, and tied with Smith for most assists at five.

In the midfield, DeSantis can always count on Mooney as a familiar face. The two have played together on club teams since sixth grade and against each other in high school.

For Mooney, being a Minuteman was always a goal. Being able to play at this level with a longtime friend has only made that experience better.

“I grew up with Alex, we’ve been playing [together] since we were younger and to come here with him and to be successful is really important to me,” he said.  “It’s good to see western Massachusetts is being represented so well,” Mooney said of local players on the team. 

Mooney has been a consistent player on the squad since his freshman year. This year, the midfielder started all 18 games, scoring a goal and having four assists.

Despite the momentum coming off the season, during which the Minutemen went unbeaten for 11 straight games before falling to Fordham in the final game, Mooney said it’s important for the team stay humble and always remember where they were just a few short seasons ago.

“We were once at the bottom, but now we continue to get better and it’s been great,” he said.

For Smith, a former ball boy at UMass’s Rudd Field, being the top goalscorer and focal point of the offense is much different from what he is used to.

“It was pretty surprising, given the fact I’ve been playing center back or center midfield most of my career, just playing striker when my team was down,” Smith said. “So it feels surprising, I’d say. It feels good.”

A standout at the Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, Smith also played for the Dallas Texans Under-17/18 team before coming to UMass.

“Davis is new and has created a really positive impression of himself regarding his ability and also he’s a terrific lad,” O’Leary said.

Smith attributes the success this season to the atmosphere and leadership of the team, saying the captains lead by example and the team follows.

He also believes it isn’t a mistake that there are so many local guys on the team.

“A lot of the players that are doing a lot for us came from the same club [the Western Mass. United Pioneers],” he said. “I think we’re kind of an understated club, not a lot of colleges were looking at us coming out of high school so it shows that we have a lot of talent out here.”

He also believes that more talented players in this area should look at staying local.

“I know a lot of kids that are from here and the coaches at UMass sure as hell would take them but they decide to go to other schools because they don’t feel UMass has the soccer talent that they feel they have,” said Smith. He added that he thinks the tides are turning and UMass will see more top-level local and national players choosing to be Minutemen.

As for the tournament, Smith only hopes the team can keep doing what they’ve been doing all year.

“I just hope we can keep it going because we’ve got a great team and we don’t want to waste this season because we don’t know what next season will hold,” he said.

The Minutemen will host Saint Louis at Rudd Field on Sunday at 1 p.m., with the winner going on to face the winner of the Fordham/Dayton game on Nov. 10 at Dayton.

Email Cameron at [email protected]

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