LOWELL - They were in limbo for five days last week, not knowing whether their season was over.
“Our fate was in everyone else’s hands,’’ said UMass-Lowell hockey captain Riley Wetmore. “It was a tough situation for us to be in.’’
The River Hawks had been shocked by Providence on home ice in their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series, losing the finale, 1-0, and finding themselves on the NCAA bubble again.
All Wetmore and teammates could do was monitor the playoff results in four conferences, check the volatile PairWise rankings and hope that a bunch of outliers (e.g. PC, Colgate, St. Cloud, Bowling Green) didn’t win their tournaments.
“That’s a feeling guys are always going to remember,’’ said senior forward Matt Ferreira. “And a feeling we don’t want again.’’
Spring may have come early to this old mill city on the Merrimack, but the River Hawks still are playing the winter game. On Friday evening, UMass-Lowell will be back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996, taking on second-seeded Miami in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn.
It will be the first time in four NCAA appearances that the River Hawks have not had to board a plane and play a first-round opponent in its own rink. Student buses will make the trip, along with the band and the mascot.
“That’s a great bonus, allowing our fans to share it with us,’’ said first-year coach Norm Bazin, who played on the 1994 varsity that was a double-overtime loss away to making it to the Frozen Four. “That may be the edge we need to get us over the top.’’
Just getting back to the national stage has been a significant achievement for a team that went from a program-worst 5-25-4 last year to 23-12-1, the third-biggest turnaround in history for a Division 1 program and the biggest under a new coach.
Only five years ago, the school’s trustees were debating whether the hockey team should stay in Division 1 in the wake of an 8-21-7 season that included a 20-game winless streak. What changed everything was new chancellor Martin Meehan’s commitment to keeping hockey a top-tier sport and the school buying Tsongas Center from the city and pouring nearly $4 million into renovations.
“Hockey has become a rallying point for the city and the university,’’ said athletic director Dana Skinner. “Hockey games are a big deal now.’’
Home attendance averaged a record 5,000-plus this season, and alums have been turning up and anteing up, paying a quarter of a million dollars toward a new strength-and-conditioning center.
A coach with credibility
After last year’s dispiriting season, which ended with the resignation of coach Blaise MacDonald, who’d been there for a decade, few figured there’d be much to cheer about this year, not with 11 freshmen and nine sophomores on a roster that included only four seniors. The Hockey East coaches pegged the River Hawks for ninth place in their preseason poll, one step above the basement.
“We knew nobody believed in us,’’ said Wetmore. “We had to believe in ourselves.’’
Bazin, who arrived fresh off crafting a turnaround at Hamilton, which in two years went from a losing record to its first NESCAC regular-season title, didn’t know anyone except for the handful of recruits that he’d had time to sign. But that proved a benefit when he held his first practice in October.
“You have no preconceived notions about how someone is supposed to be,’’ Bazin said.
The first order of business was to get back to playing “Lowell hockey’’ - the fast-paced, possession-based, assertive style that had produced three NCAA Division 2 titles and once made the River Hawks a fixture in the Garden for the Hockey East semis.
“Every time our teams have done well here, there seemed to be that style of hockey,’’ observed Skinner. “Any time we drifted away from that style, we became something we’re not.’’
Lowell is an energetic and resilient working-class city, and Bazin was determined that his charges would perform that way. He’d been a journeyman forward who turned himself into a star on a team of what he proudly labeled “outcasts.’’
Later Bazin had served as Tim Whitehead’s assistant with the River Hawks for four seasons before spending another eight at Colorado College (where he survived a near-fatal collision with a drunk driver while recruiting in eastern Washington).
“Norm walked in the door with instant credibility,’’ said Skinner.
With so many newcomers, Bazin found it both necessary and convenient to turn the page.
“I didn’t refer to last year,’’ he said. “And I didn’t want to use the term ‘rebuilding.’ ’’
Still, the coach was realistic about how his young team might fare in a cutthroat conference where every point is fiercely contended.
“I felt we could have a decent season,’’ he said.
Three startling victories in early November suggested that the River Hawks could be decidedly better than decent. After a lost weekend with Boston College, they pounded Boston University, 7-1, at Tsongas, then went up to Orono and took down Maine by 5-3 and 4-3 counts.
“We thought, maybe we’ve got a special team here,’’ said Wetmore.
Earning their way
A 5-0 thumping at New Hampshire a week later reminded the River Hawks that they had to play “Lowell hockey’’ every night if they wanted to prosper.
“We knew coming into the season that every game was important,’’ said senior forward David Vallorani, whose teammates rebounded with a 7-1 run that included two triumphs over UNH and a home victory over BC.
It was essential, though, that the River Hawks remained relentless down the stretch, which is why Bazin considered the home weekend with last-place Vermont at the beginning of February crucial. UMass-Lowell swept the games and went on to finish on an 8-3-1 run that was good for a second-place finish behind BC.
So the quarterfinal loss to Providence came as a shock, especially since the River Hawks had just swept the Friars by a 9-3 aggregate. No No. 2 seed ever had lost to a No. 7, so it was a teachable moment for a squad whose underclassmen hadn’t experienced a playoff game, and fortunately it didn’t end their season.
“Obviously the goal is to go to the Garden and win Hockey East,’’ said Ferreira, “but it was nice to have the safety net.’’
The coach had done enough research to reckon that his varsity was all but certain to land an NCAA bid.
“I pretty well knew there would have to be two drastic upsets for us not to get in, but I didn’t share that with my guys,’’ said Bazin. “To let that feeling fester in your stomach, it’s healthy.’’
Watching the PC-BC semifinal on TV on Friday night was painful.
“It was tough, knowing that it could have and should have been us,’’ said Vallorani.
It wasn’t until after the Eagles’ victory, when Jim Connelly, US College Hockey online’s senior writer, declared on NESN that the River Hawks were a lock that they could exhale.
What they’d learned was that grinding out 2 points at a time for a dozen weekends could make up for a couple of bad nights in March.
“Our body of work has gotten us into the tournament,’’ said Bazin, who was voted Hockey East Coach of the Year. “We didn’t creep into this situation. We earned our way in.’’
History has shown that the River Hawks are a dangerous foe once they get in. Twice they beat Michigan State in their NCAA opener and were one bounce of the puck away from the Frozen Four.
This time they have the goods to do some damage in Bridgeport. Sophomore goalie Doug Carr from Hanover had the best save percentage (.930) in the conference, and freshman Scott Wilson (16 goals), Hockey East’s Rookie of the Year, leads an offense that includes seven 10-goal scorers.
The most important thing, though, after last year’s forgettable campaign, is that the River Hawks still are playing.
“When anyone asks me, ‘Don’t you wish you were outside?’ I say no,’’ said Bazin. “This is when championships are won.’’John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.