This feature story was posted on Monday by Inside Lacrosse. To read the story on Inside Lacrosse’s website, please click here.
By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Media Relations
“Playing Dante would be one of the greatest moments of my career,” said UMass senior attackman Will Manny. “Throughout the week, I’d be telling my defense the scouting report on him. I’d tell my defensemen to beat up on my man for 60 minutes, but after the game, he’s still my best friend.”
That was two years ago.
The dream will become a reality Wednesday night in Bethlehem, Pa. as Manny will face off against good friend (and fellow All-American) Dante Fantoni of Lehigh. UMass and Lehigh went a combined 29-4 last season, both earning a home game in the NCAA Tournament. Wednesday’s game will air nationally on ESPNU.
“This is 100 percent for bragging rights,” said Fantoni. “Whenever we play in the summer, we’re always on the same team. We’re best friends. For everything, we’re always trying to be on the same team.”
The former teammates at St. Anthony’s on Long Island have been best friends since the summer before ninth grade. They went on to enjoy standout high school playing careers. As a senior, Fantoni led the team in goals (48), many assisted by Manny, who finished the season with 50 assists to go with 40 goals for an incredible 90 points. They wrapped up their careers by beating rival Chaminade 17-9 in the CHSAA Championship Game. Fantoni had six goals and an assist while Manny added two goals and three helpers.
After high school, the friends went their separate ways, but have grown closer ever since. Despite UMass and Lehigh being 250 miles apart, they text a few times per week, see each other over school break and continue to help each other from a distance. They always wondered what it’d be like to play one another since they’ve never faced each other in any sport, organized or pick-up.
The St. Anthony’s dynamic duo got exciting news over the summer. Fantoni was the first to find out.
“Coach [Cassese] told me when I was here over the summer that we’d be playing UMass,” said Fantoni. “I was really excited when I found out. When I first told Willy, he said ‘no way’ and didn’t believe it. It finally hit us that wow, we’d get after each other in a game.”
“This is the first time ever… in anything, anywhere, ever since I’ve known him, that we’ll play each other,” said Manny.
There are several parallels between their careers. UMass owns a rich lacrosse history and is a consistent participant in the NCAA Tournament. The Mountain Hawks have struggled in the NCAA Tournament era, but have a strong history with seven national championships (outright or shared) from 1890 to 1920. Both programs were strong when Manny and Fantoni arrived, but they’ve since reached another level.
Manny helped UMass go undefeated through the regular season and CAA Tournament last season, being named a Tewaaraton Award finalist in the process. All the while, Fantoni led Lehigh to its first Patriot League Tournament Championship and NCAA Tournament appearance. Fantoni has posted 40 or more goals in each of his first three seasons to help bring Lehigh to new heights.
“Our development has helped with our teams,” said Fantoni. “It was great to see us, a non-perennial power, be able to come up and shock everyone last year. To see Willy lead UMass and do a great job with them was unbelievable to see.
“Being able to talk to him every step of the way has helped in the development of our teams,” Fantoni continued. “We’d give each other hints here and there [on opponents]. I think that really helped us out. It was great to see both of us strive last year.”
Manny was always the feeder in high school while Fantoni was the finisher, but they’ve both developed well-rounded games in college. Manny increased his goal total last season while Fantoni posted a career-high in assists. In doing so, they led their teams to 15 and 14 wins, respectively. Manny posted 77 points (44 goals, 33 assists) while Fantoni had 43 (23 goals, 20 assists) despite an early season injury.
Manny suffered a hand injury in UMass’ first game this season, missing several weeks, but returned Saturday and looks ready to go for Wednesday’s showdown against his good friend.
“I know Will like the back of my hand,” said Fantoni. “He’s a really good player, one of the quickest players in the country. He’s got unbelievable vision and can really score the ball at will.”
“I shot a really good percentage last year. A lot of credit goes to my teammates,” said Manny. “We had a great offense and no one really cared about who got the points. That’s what you need to be successful.”
“It’s going to be tough to stop him. We’ll have to figure something out,” said Fantoni. “We have to really get after him.”
Manny was selected by the Boston Cannons in January’s Major League Lacrosse Draft while Fantoni went to the Denver Outlaws. There’s a good chance they could meet again at the professional level, but nothing beats facing a best friend in the college circuit.
“We’re playing at the top of the game right now in Division I,” said Fantoni. “Whoever wins this one is really going to give it to each other for the rest of our lives. You have to make sure you get this one.”
“It’s the first time we play, but hopefully not the last. Maybe we can meet again in the NCAA Tournament,” said Manny. “But if that doesn’t happen, this is for ultimate bragging rights. There’s nothing better than college lacrosse on ESPN.”
The fact that the game was picked up by ESPNU as a game of the week makes it even more exciting. Numerous friends who are on spring break are planning to make the trip to Bethlehem (approximately 150 miles from Long Island), but for those who can’t, they can still watch on national TV.
“It’s just the cherry on top,” said Manny. “Dante is my best friend on and off the field. I don’t think it’s going to be emotional. I obviously want him to do well, but for this game - I’m not going to say who’s guarding him - I want that specific person to beat him up for 60 minutes.”
“I know what UMass likes to do from what Willy tells me and vice versa,” said Fantoni. “It’s going to be a chess match, an all-out battle. Who wants it more in the middle of the field and just making the hustle plays will probably be the difference in the game.”
Most importantly, Wednesday will feature a crucial nonconference game for two teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations. Both have more losses at this time of year than they would have liked, but still have goals very much within grasp. A win on Wednesday could go a long way to an NCAA Tournament berth, or even seeding come May.
“Even though both teams have struggled a little bit with nonconference games, it’s a new season,” said Manny. “Top notch teams [Lehigh and UMass] - that’s what the people on the selection committee look for.”
The storylines are endless, but the best friends are most focused on getting their teams a big win and showing the nation what UMass and Lehigh are all about. Wednesday is UMass’ one and only nationally-televised game this season while it marks the second of three for Lehigh.
“Just being able to play on ESPN with these two teams who’ve never really been viewed in front of all these people, I think it’s going to be a great game and people are going to enjoy it and want to see us play more,” said Manny.
“We’ve had a couple tough losses. It’d really help if we could win this one against a great team like UMass,” said Fantoni. “Same thing for them; they started the season really strongly, but unfortunately had a few losses. It’s a big game on our turf.”
Justin Lafleur is the sports information director at Lehigh. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU at 6 p.m. Wednesday as the Warrior/ESPNU Game of the Week. InsideLacrosse.com will host a live chat during the game in conjunction with ESPNU's broadcast team.