By From the Lowell Sun
By Barry Scanlon
They were picked to finish 12th out of the 15 men's basketball teams in the Northeast-10 Conference.
No, not so much for UMass Lowell and first-year head coach Greg Herenda.
Nearly midway through the 2008-09 season, however, things are far from bleak at Costello Gymnasium.
Following last night's 81-70 road defeat of the College of Saint Rose, the River Hawks improved to 11-3, 6-3 in the NE-10.
They were in fifth place entering last night.
Herenda, who doesn't have any seniors, deserves tons of praise for the strong start, according to UML director of athletics Dana Skinner, one of the top players in Merrimack College history and a self-professed "old basketball guy."
"Obviously the kids have responded to his high energy level," Skinner said. "He has an infectious personality. I sometimes watch his team practice because they work so hard, but there's an enjoyment level to it. He will turn on Motown music while they go through drills. The kids have said to me that they've never enjoyed basketball so much."
During the Herenda-led practices, other UML coaches and students will stop what they're doing and watch drills, Skinner said.
The River Hawks aren't the most talented Division 2 team in New England -- hence their preseason ranking. Only five players returned from last year's 12-17 team and there is little height.
But UMass Lowell outworks other teams, led by forward Max Kerman of Watertown, who is so highly thought of that he was named captain as a sophomore. Kerman rarely leaves a game without a bruise or two.
Entering last night, the top scorer was Victor Colon, a 6-foot-3 junior forward from Chicago who averaged 13.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.
And then there is Kyle Caiola, a Parma, Ohio product who Skinner calls UML's best freshman point guard since Bobby Licare patrolled the hardwood at Costello nearly 25 years ago.
Caiola averaged 12.8 points, 3.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game prior to last night, and brings a mental toughness to the position.
Herenda was hired to replace Ken Barer, who went 136-75 in seven seasons, but just 21-35 in his last two seasons.
Herenda has contacts all over the country, mainly due to his years as an assistant at programs such as Holy Cross (1989-94), Seton Hall (1994-97) and Yale (1997-99), as well as when he was the associate head coach of Eastern Carolina (2000-05).
For now, UML fans can take comfort in the fact that Herenda is intent on squeezing every ounce of talent from the 2008-09 River Hawks.
Take Tuesday, for instance.
The River Hawks were lethargic in the first half. They were shooting poorly. Nothing was going right against a LeMoyne team which had won five straight. The score at halftime? UML 34, LeMoyne 34.
The only reason UML wasn't blown out by halftime was Herenda had his kids playing hard on every inch of the court, making a 76-65 victory possible, an admiring Skinner said.
Opponents shoot a low foul shooting percentage (63.9 percent) against UML. It's no secret why, an opposing coach told Skinner recently. The River Hawks play so hard opponents become exhausted and even simple tasks like shooting free throws become taxing, especially late in games.
"I've held Greg in a very high regard for a very long time," Skinner said.
So much, in fact, that Skinner twice previously tried to hire him, the first when he was at Salem State, the second when he was at UML, but before he became director of athletics.
"He learns from everybody. He's been with some very good people," Skinner said.
Early in the season, Skinner saw the River Hawks score off an inbounds play.
Impressed by the play, Skinner later asked Herenda where he had learned it.
He said, "I went to a high school game the other day and I learned it from there."
The River Hawks are not only winning, they're winning in entertaining fashion. Last year's team averaged 64 points per game. This year's squad is averaging nearly 75 points.
Under Herenda, the River Hawks are sweating -- and smiling.