LOWELL, Mass. – Tuesday night was the on-campus beginning of a new era for UMass-Lowell, at least of sorts. The River Hawks had already played three games in their first season of Division I, but all came away from campus. Costello Gym was home to a Division I game for the first time, and while the River Hawks walked out with an 87-76 loss, it’s only the beginning of things.
Costello Gym isn’t going to hold a lot of people, but it had a good crowd with some good energy. There was some buzz about it on campus, although players were a little mixed on what to expect. The crowd didn’t take off when Brown broke the game open near the midway point of the second half, and they were around when the River Hawks made it interesting with a late run.
“I thought it was a great turnout by our students, and they stayed until the end, which was fortunate for us,” said head coach Pat Duquette. “We made a nice little run in the second half, and our student body was there not just to see it, but to provide a little excitement for our guys.”
Brown led for most of the night, and went up 78-56 with 6:35 left. UMass-Lowell then scored the next 15 points to get within seven, and with 2:29 left there was plenty of time to rally further. The River Hawks would get no closer, but there was plenty of energy in the gym because the crowd had stuck around.
“A lot of times when we would get down, hearing the buzz from the crowd, knowing the student section was behind us kind of helped us stay in the game and stay focused,” said senior Akeem Williams, who was one of four River Hawks in double figures on the evening with 16 points.
UMass-Lowell probably wasn’t on many people’s radar as a school to make the move to Division I. When America East saw arguably its signature program, Boston University, leave for the Patriot League over a year ago, they needed to do something for survival as other schools undoubtedly started exploring their options a little more. UMass-Lowell didn’t announce it was going to Division I until it was going to America East, a sensible move since it will eventually give them a road to reach the NCAA Tournament. Being independent, a distinction only NJIT holds now among Division I schools, makes recruiting much more difficult because there isn’t a real opportunity to reach the NCAA Tournament.
The transition won’t be easy, and the first year will be especially difficult. The talent, size and athletic differences will be striking at times, as was the case on Tuesday, and with no postseason eligibility players and coaches have to play to win for the natural competitive reasons. Evidence of progress will rarely be found on the bottom line of games. Not helping with the talent deficiency is that a key veteran, Antonio Bivins, and a talented freshman, Jahad Thomas, will both miss the season due to injury. There’s also a change in coaching, as former head coach Greg Herenda is now the head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson, which means adjustments all the way around.
“I think there’s a good level of both respect and trust,” said Duquette. “We’re all learning. I told them from the start, I’m going to have to coach through my mistakes, this is my first time.”
Duquette isn’t trying for a quick fix. He wants to build this program up the right way, with the right kids. He’s been around the game enough to have plenty to draw upon and start building this program. He and his staff are casting a wide net in recruiting, although New England is a fertile ground with the NEPSAC prep schools. In the nearly completed early signing period, UMass-Lowell signed five players that will become an integral part of the building effort. Only one stands taller than 6’6″, so they won’t immediately remedy the lack of size, but they will form the core for the next few years. None are from New England, and in time that may change.
The school has a lot going for it as they make the move. The hockey program plays in the powerful Hockey East and has a tradition of success. The academic reputation is solid, especially in engineering. It’s also not far from Lelacheur Park, where the Lowell Spinners, a Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, play home games. And Duquette is excited about playing in Tsongas Arena, which is home to the hockey team and hosts a number of non-sporting events as well. It’s the first place the staff brings recruits, and while just three games are scheduled for there this season, the hope is to get more games there each year until every home game is played there. They feel the arena will help them land some of the players they recruit.
Everyone involved knows the school isn’t going to win a lot of games at first. This is all a process, and even if they won 20 games this year they can’t make the NCAA Tournament as part of their re-classification. But the ground work is being laid for the future, and Tuesday night was part of the beginning of it.