Through The Maroon: UConn-UMass rivalry, Stefanie Kulesza and packing the Mullins Center

UMass football fans inside McGuirk Alumni Stadium earlier this season against Miami (Ohio) in Amherst.

UMass football fans inside McGuirk Alumni Stadium earlier this season against Miami (Ohio) in Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By HANNAH BEVIS, GARRETT COTE and THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writers

Published: 11-24-2023 1:24 PM

Thomas Johnston

One of the great things about college sports is the rivalries between local schools. 

It's what makes weekends like this so exciting, getting to see Michigan play Ohio State, Auburn take on Alabama, etc. It's one of the best weekends in the sport. 

While many have come up with nicknames and have found ways to mock the UMass-UConn rivalry, I for one am excited they're playing this game. 

After all, it wasn't long ago they didn't. The Minutemen and the Huskies began playing each other on the field in 2018 and have played each year since. Last year they signed a deal to continue playing through 2027. 

That should be permanent. There's no reason the two FBS state schools in New England aren't meeting up on rivalry weekend every fall. 

The teams have been competitive with each other as well. UMass won in 2018, UConn won in 2019, the Minutemen came away with a win in 2021 while the Huskies were victorious in 2022. 

If both schools want to continue building their programs, promoting this game could go a long way. While UMass hasn't had much success against Boston College, getting to play a game with local ties is the only way to help build up collegiate sports in New England. 

If you are one of those people braving the cold at McGuirk on Saturday, you may be in for a treat. 

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The UMass defense is giving up 38.5 points per game this season, last in the FBS. UConn isn't much better, surrendering 30.91 points per game which ranks 103rd in the country. Vegas sees it the same way, with an over/under set at 51.5 points. 

Expect a lot of points and some excitement to cap off the 2023 season. 

Hannah Bevis

With the departure of all five of their starters, including graduate students Sam Breen and Destiney Philoxy, and nearly every other player entering the transfer portal in the offseason, the UMass women’s basketball team was in desperate need of a leader to step up. Filling those shoes is far from easy, but one of the bright spots of the Minutewomen’s season so far has been the emergence of Stefanie Kulesza. 

Kulesza was the highest ranked recruit that then-head coach Tory Verdi had managed to bring to UMass. Kulesza made a splash by leaving high school early to come to UMass, joining the self-proclaimed “Savage Seven,” a group of seven players who managed to make it all the way to the A-10 championship game. 

Despite being one of the top 100 ranked players of her recruiting class, UMass fans didn’t get a chance to see much of Kulesza until recently. Verdi runs a very tight bench, and though Kulesza was one of the few players who saw semi-regular minutes, she wasn’t one of the team’s stars, averaging 12.6 minutes a game and just 2.5 points a game a year ago. 

This year, Kulesza has gotten a chance to actually be a difference-maker on the court, and it’s become apparent why Verdi recruited her. Kulesza notched two double-doubles in the team’s first five games and averaged 31.6 minutes, 14 points and nine rebounds a game during that span. She’s started every contest, and she’s not even playing in her typical position - usually a guard, the junior has been forced into a forward spot because of injuries that have decimated UMass’ depth. That said, head coach Mike Leflar might want to keep her there – Kulesza has looked right at home in the paint. 

It’s been refreshing to see Kulesza back on the floor and getting significant minutes. She’s a talented player, and probably could have gotten more playing time earlier under a different coach or if she was playing behind a team that didn’t have Sydney Taylor, Destiney Philoxy and Ber’Nyah Mayo on it. Regardless, she’s showing her true capabilities now, and UMass fans should certainly hope she continues to shine for the Minutewomen this season.

Garrett Cote

The Mullins Center was the loudest it has been since the Derek Kellogg era during last Friday’s game against Harvard.

Students poured into their section underneath the basket for Greek Life Night and the rest of the Minutemen faithful settled in their seats to make up a 40 percent capacity. I know, it still doesn’t sound great – at all – but it’s a start.

The fans actually gave their UMass team energy and effort as the game went into overtime, head coach Frank Martin even said as much in his postgame presser. The Minutemen had four players log 30 or more minutes, and two more players (freshmen Robert Davis Jr. and Jaylen Curry, who aren’t used to the speed of Division 1 basketball quite yet) see 26 and 24 minutes, respectively.

It was also the most intense, physical game UMass has played this season. So, to have the Mullins Maniacs on their side instilled an extra motivation that they desperately needed given the minutes.

Martin and the Minutemen were upset that they couldn’t pull out the 78-75 overtime loss to then-undefeated Harvard, but seeing the turnout – the biggest under Martin – was hopefully a sign of good things to come.

"I'm disappointed for our players and our fans. I don't say this in a negative way for the past, I say this in a positive way for the future: That was a lot of fun having fans in there giving our guys fight and energy,” Martin said after the overtime loss to Harvard. “That's what we're fighting to build here, and I get the fans that are going home today and they're disappointed. So are we. But stick with these guys. Our guys are hurting right now. The only time you hurt is when you commit."

Wednesday’s game against Central Connecticut State University makes sense in terms of why there was nobody there; students were gone for Thanksgiving and it was the closest thing to a guaranteed win for what some bettors had as the double-digit-point favorite Minutemen.

But the game with the Crimson last Friday should be the standard at bare minimum. The fan experience has an indisputable direct impact on the college experience. It’s a blast to go to sporting events to support your peers with a huge crowd. It creates an atmosphere like no other, and it certainly has an influence on the players – they’ll be the first to tell you.

I hope the positive momentum built from that game carries into the post-holiday non-conference schedule and into Atlantic 10 play.