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UML underdogs now overachievers

A female field hockey member getting ready to make her move in a field hockey game.

By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.


LOWELL - 0 + 0 = 1.

Impossible? No.

Just ask Shannon Hlebichuk, who took over a zero-hope UMass Lowell field hockey program three years ago with zero coaching experience and presto! somehow has guided the River Hawks to the No. 1 ranking among Division 2 teams in the nation.

"I don't think any of us expected this much this soon," Hlebichuk said.

The River Hawks, 10-0 after beating AIC 2-0 yesterday, learned of their top-ranked status Tuesday, the pinnacle for a program which went 0-6 in its 1975 debut and 1-17 in 1988.

Heady stuff for a program which suffered through 14 losing seasons during a 15-year stretch prior to Hlebichuk a 1998 UML graduate and former field hockey star taking over in 2002.

"They took a chance on me ... I don't know why they did," said Hlebichuk, who was completing her master's degree at Arizona State University when UML's job opened. "Nobody wanted to work at UMass Lowell as badly as I did. I knew we could get the players."

The River Hawks went 9-9 in Hlebichuk's first year and last fall saw UML go 15-8 after a gigantic last-season roll culminated in a Northeast-10 championship, a North Region title and a 4-1 NCAA Division 2 championship game loss to Bloomsburg on UML's Cushing Field.

"I think everyone was in shock. I don't think anyone took UMass Lowell field hockey seriously," Hlebichuk said.

That lack of respect carried over to this summer, when an NCAA publication listed the Division 2 teams to beat and UMass Lowell wasn't even mentioned.

For those who thought the River Hawks were a one-year wonder, that they wouldn't overcome the graduation losses of goaltender Patrice Mendoza, forward Laura Petros and midfielder Martha Marsden, the 10-0 start is proof that Hlebichuk & Co. are for real.

"Everyone has bought into the program," said Hlebichuk, who counts 16 Massachusetts natives among her 19 players. "Now we have the big target on our backs. It's pressure that we haven't felt before. Now we have expectations on us we haven't had before. You'd rather had the pressure."

They may be No. 1 in the country, but the River Hawks still view themselves as underdogs. Being omitted in the NCAA preseason story helps feed their considerable fire. The article is displayed prominently in their locker room.

"That was a slap in the face," senior midfielder and Waltham native Jacklyn Driscoll said. "That makes us angrier and hungrier. (Being ranked No. 1) feels amazing coming from my freshman year when we weren't even a .500 team. To actually get the respect finally feels really good. We have a really good chemistry."

UMass Lowell, like all good teams, has learned to win the close games. Driscoll, senior forward Alysia Morgan and junior forward Courtney Hill have all scored overtime game-winners this fall.

Hill (23 points), Driscoll (22) and Morgan (18) were three of the top six Division 2 scorers in the nation.

"Last year we weren't expected to win," Hill said. "This year we're kind of setting the tone."

Hill, a Newburyport native and younger sister of ex-Lowell Lock Monsters defenseman Ed Hill, leads the River Hawks with nine goals.

"Her speed is unmatched in the league," Hlebichuk said. "She creates a lot of opportunities for us."

Driscoll missed much of UML's post-season run with a concussion, but she's healthy again and a key cog for the River Hawks. Other key players are junior midfielder Joanna DaLuze and Andover's Abby Dennehy, a senior defender.

Of DaLuze, Hlebichuk said, "She's a kid that can go down and find a way to beat nine players. She just has the basketball moves."

Dennehy, meanwhile, is the "most underrated back in the league, I truly believe," Hlebichuk said.

Among local products, ex-Chelmsford High stars Kim Villare and Leah Demers, are key contributors.

"She just has the ability to pick an opponent apart," Hlebichuk said of Villare.

Villare, a sophomore, has started every game on defense, while Demers, a freshman, sees plenty of time off the bench.

"We have some very good players and we all get along really well," Villare said. "People still don't take us seriously because they're like, 'Lowell, state school.' We just keep rolling. We're undefeated. We just can't let (the No. 1 ranking) get to our heads."

Another local contributor is freshman Charlene Colameta, a former North Middlesex Regional standout.

Playing for a national title and breaking out to a 10-0 start may be putting a damper on UMass Lowell's underdog mantra. Now the River Hawks are top dogs in the entire nation.

"Now we're getting the best players from winning programs," said Hlebichuk, who is quick to credit her assistants, Kerry Dudley and Erin Stewart, two ex-UML standouts. "Finally the word's getting out on UMass Lowell."

Even if the math gaining credibility on University Avenue 0 + 0 = 1 continues to be doubted in some quarters.