March 20, 2014

UMass Embracing 'Fun' With High-Energy Style

by Laurel Pfahler | | Twitter

Players like newly-minted program all-time leading scorer Kelsey Ferris have taken to the 'family' atmosphere and using fun and competition in equal measure that coach Angela McMahon has brought to the program. (UMass Athletics)

Whether it's through "Music Monday" or "Practice Pump-Up," the University of Massachusetts women's lacrosse team is turning up the intensity this season by having a little more fun.

Fourth-year coach Angela McMahon brought in some new ideas to help raise the energy level at practice with hopes that would make a difference in big games and during the postseason.

The No. 7 Minutewomen (8-0) haven't lost more than three games in any season since McMahon took over, but they've yet to advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament. That's one goal they hope to accomplish this year. Another is to beat Northwestern, a team that has accounted for three of eight losses the past three years and who they host Tuesday night.

"When the girls do the same thing every day they are going to lose interest and get bored," McMahon said. "We have to keep them challenging and competing. To do that you have to come in with fresh ideas. We do little things that end up making a big difference in terms of intensity and energy in practice because when you have greater intensity and more energy in practice, that's when the team gets better."

McMahon has tried to create a true family atmosphere, too – something she experienced as a player at Northwestern and hoped to establish within her team through bonding exercises and making her own family a part of the team. McMahon's husband and two children interact often with the players.

Team-building exercises began in the fall with things like "Competition Week," where everyone was divided into two groups that battled one another in different lacrosse and non-lacrosse drills and games. "Music Monday" is a favorite new addition for the players, who get to pick songs to play throughout practice on Mondays, and McMahon tries to bring in motivational speakers whenever she can.

Then there is the daily "Practice Pump-Up" ritual, an idea brought in by assistant coach Whitney Michele, who suggested each player take responsibility for a certain practice and motivating the team through an inspirational quote or sharing treats.

"It helps the girls get focused on what they need to do in practice," McMahon said. "It's about competition but being on this journey together, building a team unity that is unbreakable and if we can keep building that, we will just be tougher and tougher to beat.

"I definitely think that is the cornerstone and backbone to everything – all the outside the box thinking and not conforming to one identity. It breaks up the routine of it all."

So far, the "outside-the-box" thinking has worked for McMahon, who took over a team that was 10-10 in 2010 and finished 17-3 her first year.

UMass enters Saturday's game against Southern California undefeated, and the Minutewomen have outscored their last four opponents 64-22. They opened with a pair of confidence-building road wins at Vanderbilt and Connecticut and have continued to show improvement each game, McMahon said.

Senior Katie Ferris said the changes to the routine have made a difference.

"I think all those changes and making everything different everyday, we are excited to be there and when you're happy you're working harder and so you're practicing more intense and you're preparing better," Ferris said. "Our success doesn't seem different from past years because we've had starts like this since I've been here, but this year, I think we just have more potential to go farther than past years. We're all more mentally prepared and capable of winning because we've learned a lot."

Ferris has been a big part of what McMahon calls a well-balanced attack that is "critical" to the team's success going forward. Ferris leads UMass in points with 18 goals and 23 assists, while Sam Rush has a team-high 26 goals. Louisville transfer Erika Eipp (12 goals and 11 assists) has been finding her role within the team and playing well as of late, and Tanner Guarino (13 goals, 2 assists) is a solid contributor in the midfield.

The Minutewomen successfully have been working to improve their shooting after making just 12 of 36 shots in a win over New Hampshire on March 8. They made 54.8 percent (17 of 31) of their shots the next game against Colorado, and they were up to 64.0 percent shooting Wednesday against Vermont.

Meanwhile, the defense – led by Kelsey McGovern and Kelsey Sheridan – has held steady as UMass hasn't allowed more than eight goals in any game.

"Our defense has been the backbone of our team in every game so far this season, limiting opponents' opportunities and their shots and angles and being really aggressive," McMahon said. "We want to put a lot of pressure on our opponents and force them into rushed decisions or bad angles, and I think our team has done that."

Now, the Minutewomen hope to put together a complete game against Northwestern – the next big hurdle awaiting them before they head into Atlantic 10 competition.

"This is a tough stretch of our schedule right now, so we're just focusing one day at a time trying to get better and hopefully each day we are playing together we are improving," McMahon said. "We don't do anything flashy. We just come to work hard and work together and hopefully at the end of the year we can just stay together as long as possible and win some games."

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