LOWELL, MA ߝ UMass Lowell, riding its best start in school history at 9-0, earned the No. 1 ranking in the country as the National Field Hockey Coaches Association released its weekly poll Tuesday morning.
The River Hawks, ranked No. 2 last week, achieved the top spot by virtue of previous No. 1 Bloomsburg’s 1-0 loss at home last week to No. 4 Indiana of Pennsylvania. UML, 6-0 in the Northeast-10 Conference, went 3-0 last week, defeating Stonehill (2-1) in overtime Tuesday night as well as Franklin Pierce (4-1) Saturday and Mercyhurst (7-1) Sunday.
“We are honored that our peers see us as the No. 1 team in the country,” said Head Coach Shannon Hlebichuk, in her third year. “This is an exciting time for UMass Lowell field hockey and it is the first No. 1 ranking in the history of the program.
“With that said, I am reluctant to get overly excited because our conference is very strong and the second half of the season is more important than the first half,” Hlebichuk added. “We are going to continue to outwork and outhustle each team.”
The ranking and perfect record encompasses several significant feats for the River Hawks. The most notable is the fact that they graduated three of their best players from the 2003 season in forward Laura Petros, midfielder Martha Marsden and goalkeeper Patrice Mendoza.
A conference all-star, Petros was UML’s scoring leader last season with 13 goals and four assists while Marsden, a first-team NFHCA All-American, registered eight goals and 10 assists, and either scored or set up 15 of UML’s final 25 goals of the 2003 season.
A two-time All-American and NE-10 Goalkeeper of the Year, Mendoza set a plethora of school records including shutouts in a season (nine) and career (26) as well as games in a season (22) and a career (77).
“I knew they would be big losses on and off the field,” Hlebichuk said of the 2003 seniors. “But I knew this year’s senior class of five was coming back ready to win. That is what they have known last 2 years. They have been ready to step up since they were sophomores.”
Additionally, the River Hawks have won away from home against formidable opponents, evidenced by overtime victories at No. 5 Bentley (2-1) and Bryant (3-2). The win at Bentley was only the third loss surrendered by the Falcons in 83 home matches. It was also UML’s first victory on Falcon turf.
UML has also played composed in pressure situations, winning three matches in overtime. Neither of the matches lasted more than eight minutes into extra time.
Many players have stepped forward, most notably junior forward Courtney Hill (Newburyport, MA) and senior midfielder Jacklyn Driscoll (Waltham, MA). After registering three goals and six assists last year, Hill leads all River Hawk scorers with nine goals and five assists (23 points) and ranks tied for first among NE-10 leaders. She is one of three UML players ranked among the top four scorers in the NE-10.
Driscoll, who earned All-American honors in 2003 despite missing six matches due to injuries, has thrived as UML’s catalyst. A scorer as much a creator, Driscoll is third among NE-10 leaders with 8-5-21.
Not to be outdone is senior Alysia Morgan (Gardner, MA), who is fourth among league leaders with 6-6-18; and sophomore Sara Hohenberger (Salem, NH), eighth with 5-1-11.
Along with Driscoll, also standing out from the UML midfield are juniors Joanna DaLuze (Harwich, MA) and Taylor Kloss (Georgetown, MA). DaLuze (1-7-9) tops the NE-10 assist leaders while Kloss has chipped in 4-1-9.
“Our scoring has been dispersed,” Hlebichuk said. “There has not been just one person who has been scoring. Teams are having a hard time keying in on any individual player because anyone on the front line can put the ball into the net. That has been one of our strongest assets this year.”
As prolific as the River Hawks score, they defend every bit as well. UML has surrendered 11 goals thus far, an average of 1.19. Most of the credit goes to the back line of seniors Emily Davis (Gloucester, MA) and Abby Dennehy (Andover, MA), as well as junior Josselyn Mroz (Salisbury, MA) and sophomore Kim Villare (Chelmsford, MA).
The quartet has made life somewhat easier for sophomore goalkeeper Nicole Staiti (Barre, MA), who has replaced Mendoza admirably. In 608 minutes, Staiti has maintained a goals against average of 1.15, good for third among NE-10 leaders.
“Defensively, we’re stronger as far as our field players are concerned because of their experience,” said Hlebichuk. “They haven’t given up as many shots as last year.
“Nicole has done a superb job keeping us in games,” she added. “I don’t think anyone outside of this team thought Nicole would step up like she has, but we knew she would. She had big shoes to fill, but she has stepped up. And she is only going to get stronger.”
UML visits American International (0-6) Wednesday at 4:00 and returns home to host Assumption (1-5) Tuesday, Sept. 28 (7:00).