After last year’s Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) championship game defeat to Towson, the University of Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team walked into the locker room to start fall practice and noticed a new piece of memorabilia hanging on the wall. The UMass coaches had pinned a photo of the Minutemen taken during the trophy celebration, as they watched Towson collect the title for the second time in three seasons.
“We had that image up so we’d know what that feeling was,” said Foxboro alum and senior long pole Luc Valenza. “We just never want to have that feeling every again. That was motivation every single day from fall ball and finally we can take it down, since we brought it home.”
Last weekend at Garber Field, the Minutemen got a measure of revenge. UMass, the top seed in the CAA Tournament and 16th-ranked team nationally, held Towson to just one goal in the fourth quarter and pulled out a 12-8 victory that clinched the program’s first CAA title and its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012 (20th overall).
“It’s definitely pretty special, definitely a great feeling,” said Valenza, who admitted that facing Towson again in the final made the victory even better. “This is my first time bringing it home at the CAA, so it was a great feeling. It was one of our many goals this year, so it’s awesome going into the playoffs and NCAAs.”
When asked what it was like at the whistle when the title was secured, he replied, “It was great. It was a great feeling, a lot of excitement, a lot of joy, and it was a surreal moment for sure.”
In the championship game, Valenza, a former standout at Foxboro and 2014 Hockomock League MVP, led the Minutemen with four ground balls and three forced turnovers. He finished the season with 21 ground balls was named to the All-CAA First Team at close defense.
Early in the season, a UMass title felt unlikely. The Minutemen got off to a 1-4 start with losses to Army, Harvard, Yale (the Minutemen’s first round opponent in the NCAA Tournament), and Albany. While UMass did not get the results it was looking for in that rough opening stretch, the Minutemen also faced two teams currently ranked in the top four nationally that have both been the top team in the country at one point this season (current No. 4 Yale and No. 2 Albany).
Since the loss to Albany on March 6, UMass is unbeaten. The Minutemen have won 11 in a row heading into the NCAA Tournament and have allowed eight or fewer goals in each of the last six games.
“Trusting the process,” said Valenza about what turned the season around. “Every week going into it one game at a time. We started off 1-4 and obviously that’s not ideal but we just stuck with it, trusted ourselves, trusted the process and it all worked out in the end.”
He added, “Really, just heart and hustle, making the tough plays, getting the ground balls, defensively just communicating with each other, trusting the game plan, and it’s all kind of come through.”
That winning run will be put to the test against Yale on Saturday afternoon. UMass lost the first meeting 13-10 at Garber Field, although the Minutemen do have a 19-8 edge in the all-time series between the teams. This time, UMass will be taking the bus ride to New Haven, Conn. and, according to Valenza, will enter the game with plenty of confidence.
“Looking forward to a little redemption,” he explained. “We’re a different team than when we lost to them and we’re a more confident group and excited to bring it on Saturday. We feel confident in our abilities and our matchups.
“Hopefully, we can keep this thing going.”
It has been a long road to this point for Valenza, who began playing lacrosse in sixth grade when someone explained to him that the game involved aspects of other sports he played, and would allow him to hit some people.
“Originally, I was a middie,” Valenza said, “but Coach DeVellis came up to me and said, ‘You know what? I think you’ll do well with a long pole in your hand, you just get to hit people from here on out.’ So, I was like this works for me.”
He was one of the top-rated players in the Hockomock League throughout his four-year varsity career at Foxboro, garnering statewide notice and twice being named to the Eastern Mass. All-American second team. “Have to Coach Noone a shout-out over there,” said Valenza. “I learned a lot from him and I’m sure other guys did too. He’s a great coach to play under, you get a lot of experience, and become a better player for it.”
“He led us for four years,” said Noone, who also played at UMass, graduating in 1994. “The kid is just a freak athlete and we used to joke that you want to be a surgeon, not a butcher, and he’s slowly become a surgeon. He’s tough as nails. I’m so proud of him.”
“It is the best,” Noone added about the importance of a former Warrior succeeding at that level. “That’s a product of Foxboro lacrosse. Great family, great kid, and he’s tough man.”
After playing only three games as a freshman at UMass and eight as a sophomore, Valenza has been a constant presence in the UMass defense for the past two seasons, making 15 starts as a junior and 16 so far this spring. He recognized the development in his game during his time in college and noted that it gave him the confidence to perform against top competition.
“Going into the game, confidence was a big thing and understanding whoever we play, me personally and throughout the team, we were ready for the challenge and were excited for the opportunity,” Valenza said.
When asked if he had time to look back at how far his career has come from his first time picking up a lacrosse stick to now, Valenza chuckled. He said, “I’m sure when it’s all said and done and settled down, I’ll be able to look back on it but for the moment, I’m just living in it.”
When the season comes to a close, Valenza’s lacrosse career will continue after he was called up to the Italian national team to compete in this summer’s FIL World Championships being held in Israel in July. He tried out with more than 100 players earlier this year and was one a select few that will get this experience.
“I was fired up,” he said. “I was very excited to get that call and have this opportunity. I’m excited to travel over there and be part of the team. It’s going to be a great moment, great learning experience, and just a great opportunity.”
That is a few months away and, for now, Valenza’s focus is on the game against Yale and the chance to close out his senior season on a high. He said, “Of all years, senior year is a pretty special one, especially since this is kind of our legacy.”
Having already added to the trophy case with the CAA title, Luc Valenza and the Minutemen will try to keep the season alive as long as possible.
“It’s been good so far, but really we just want to keep it going. We don’t want it to end, take it one game at a time and keep grinding through.”
Valenza is one of three former Hockomock players on the UMass roster. He is joined by junior LSM Mike Sullivan (Franklin) and freshman midfielder Josh Rotman (Sharon).
(Editor’s Note – UMass lost to Yale in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday afternoon. The Minutemen fought back in the fourth quarter and cut the lead to just three but fell 15-12. Valenza had two forced turnovers and three ground balls in the loss.)