By Evan Lips
LOWELL -- This is your team.
UMass Lowell senior Jessica Greene said she's attended River Hawks hockey games since her freshman year. Graduate student Janelle Diaz came down with a case of River Hawks fever about a year ago.
"I feel like there's this connection everyone has," Diaz said about the emotional bond the school's hockey team has forged with not just students, but city residents as well.
Both attended Wednesday's media day event, where their boys in blue sat to the left and right of coach Norm Bazin, Athletic Director Dana Skinner and Chancellor Marty Meehan.
It was Skinner who best summed up the hockey fervor that has gripped the city.
"This is a campus on fire," he said, as senior captain Riley Wetmore, seated at the podium to Bazin's left, looked on.
UMass Lowell's team is bound for Pittsburgh, the host city for this year's NCAA Frozen Four. The River Hawks will face off against Yale University on April 11. The winner will skate on April 13 against either Connecticut's Quinnipiac University or Minnesota's St. Cloud State University for the championship.
None of this season's Frozen Four schools have ever won the championship. Yale, in 1952, is the only school out of the four to ever make it this far.
How a college team went from a five-win Hockey East doormat to league champs will be talked about for years to come. One word that likely won't surface in those alehouse hockey debates is "lucky."
The River Hawks ripped off three straight one-goal wins en route to the Hockey East crown. In the NCAA Tournament Northeast Regional, the team trounced the University of Wisconsin, 6-1, before besting the University of New Hampshire, 2-0.
In their last six games, all tournament play, the River Hawks have outscored opponents 11-2 in the third period, with two overtime wins.
Wetmore, asked if there was something special happening inside the River Hawks' locker room during the second intermissions, acknowledged that close games have been a year-long trend.
At the beginning of the year not everyone had "bought into the system," Wetmore said.
"There were five or six guys early on who bought in and the next week it would be another group of guys," Wetmore said. "Our team defense has been stellar as guys started blocking shots every night.
"We're not sure who it's going to be but we know someone is going to contribute."
Bazin acknowledged that the early-season losses, albeit part of a tough opening schedule, served as a "great barometer for where we were at."
Skinner said he recalled chatting with Bazin at the end of December when the team was 4-7-1.
"I made a comment to (Bazin) that this was not the start that he wanted," said Skinner. "And Norm looked at me and said, 'We're fine.' My response was, 'Could we be fine a little bit faster?' "
Skinner's story drew some laughs but Bazin said the losing wound up helping the team develop a "business-like" recipe for winning on the road. Two post-Christmas sweeps in Vermont and Maine brought confidence.
"We are the best road team in the country and I don't mind sharing that because I do feel we play with discipline," the Manitoba native said.
After the press conference, Bazin was asked about the bond that exists between the team, the students and the city. Bazin, a 1994 UMass Lowell graduate, said it's no fun being successful if you cannot share it.
"This experience is for everyone," he said. "And for me Lowell is home."