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Pieces there for special 2012-13 for UMass athletics



Last modified: Monday, August 27, 2012
AMHERST

The field hockey team already has two wins over top 20 teams. The women's soccer team hung with national title contender UCLA in a close loss, and the men's soccer team is undefeated.

The 2012-13 athletic year, the most anticipated in University of Massachusetts history, is off to a good start.

UMass has had memorable athletic years in the past, plenty of them. But even at the height of the men's basketball team's success in the early to mid-1990s, there wasn't much enthusiasm for the Division I-AA football program in western Massachusetts, let alone outside of 413.

But the potential for the Minutemen having a realistic shot at making the NCAA men's basketball tournament and the football team's ascension to Bowl Subdivision has the fan base as engaged as it's ever been.

That interest will hit full stride when UMass plays its first game as an FBS program, against former and perhaps future rival Connecticut, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in East Hartford.

The excitement around the football program is a mixture of enthusiasm and curiosity about the present. At UMass, there's never been greater anticipation for a team most people are expecting to struggle.

Every preseason magazine and online prognostication seems to be predicting the Minutemen will finish anywhere from 0-12 to 3-9, with more picking zero wins than three.

But the idea of witnessing the beginning of something that could someday become special is the biggest draw this season.

After replacing the not especially successful and not especially popular Kevin Morris, new coach Charley Molnar's seemingly boundless energy and optimism have helped spark the interest. If the team can show promise and progress for down the road, most fans will be satisfied, hopeful and engaged.

If the Minutemen can actually win a handful of games with their young players making an impact, and crowds are decent, enthusiasm will overflow.

While the football anticipation is based on future day-dreaming, the enthusiasm for the men's basketball team is rooted in expectations for a team that appears to have a high ceiling.

The core of the roster that went to last year's National Invitation Tournament semifinals is back and a year more experienced. Chaz Williams, UMass' charismatic star point guard, is already getting preseason accolades from national media outlets and will be a favorite for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year honors.

A return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years has become the expectation, not some maroon-tinted optimism.

If the Minutemen can overcome a handful of injuries that might slow them early, they have a chance to contended for an NCAA tournament berth and an Atlantic 10 title.

With several key players moving into the likely primes of their college careers, there would have been increased interest in the hockey team no matter who the coach was, despite barely making the Hockey East playoffs last year. But the combination of higher expectations and the curiosity about new coach John Micheletto has added to the anticipation.

Both lacrosse teams return their best players and should be favorites in their respective conferences again, while Minuteman attackman Will Manny should be a serious contender for national player of the year honors.

A year ago, September approached with only UMass' most die-hard fans feeling optimistic. The football team was coming off a mediocre year and the basketball team's promising start in 2010-11 had fizzled down the stretch. Even the reliably successful softball and men's lacrosse teams missed the postseason. Morale and attendance were low.

Twelve months later, the early successes of soccer and field hockey might be only the beginning.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.