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.