LOWELL -- One final tweak to its 2010 national championship season was necessary before the UMass Lowell field hockey team totally embraced its No. 1 national ranking heading into this season.
As one can surmise from her team last season finishing 24-0, UMass Lowell coach Shannon Hlebichuk is a perfectionist. And the Division 2 national championship rings presented to players and staff were imperfect in her eyes.
"There wasn't enough red," says Hlebichuk. "Nice big blue stone, but the red around it wasn't to my standards."
So Hlebichuk had the rings shipped back.
"They should be here in another week or so," she says.
Junior midfielder Chelsea Gillies of Chelmsford says she could have lived with an ill-proportioned blue-red ratio in the rings' school-colors scheme.
"I was just happy to have a championship ring," says Gillies, happy also to be recovered from the torn ACL in her right knee suffered in the River Hawks' 13th game last season.
Gillies and sophomore midfielder/forward Kayla MacDonald, former Chelmsford High teammates, are among those being called upon to lift their games in proportion to the relentless expectations heaped on Hlebichuk's program. UMass Lowell will open its 2011 season on Saturday in Waltham against West Chester (Pa.). The River Hawks' home-opener is the following day against Millersville (Pa.).
Winning a national title last season as a freshman only made MacDonald hungrier for another.
"I feel we definitely could do it again, if we put our all into it," she says.
UMass Lowell's No. 1 ranking in the National Field Hockey Coaches Association poll released last Tuesday seems a residual salute to the 2010 River Hawks' dominance. The River Hawks, while finishing 24-0 and winning their second national title in six years, outscored opponents 119-8.
Yet nearly three-quarters of those goals have graduated, including the 30 scored by Tewksbury's Sammy Macy, the program's all-time leading scorer, who is now a UMass Lowell assistant coach. The 2010 team's other 30-goal scorer, Liz Day, who scored in the 1-0 victory over Shippensburg in the national title game in Louisville, also graduated.
"I don't know if the poll takes into account we lost four All-Americans, seven seniors," says Hlebichuk, beginning her 10th season as UML coach. "But I guess we're at that point in our modern culture that this is the expectation. We want that respect. We want to earn that respect. But we have the target on our back. We'll have to work extra hard this year to compensate for the offense that we lost."
Sophomore goalie Melanie Hopkins of Harwich and senior defender Annie Hansbury of Plaistow, N.H., both second-team All-Americans last season, are the most prominent of 14 returning players. Gillies' expected return to full-speed this season, to reinforce an experienced defense in front of the All-American goalie, also comforts Hlebichuk.
"Her worst fear was to tear an ACL," Hlebichuk says of Gillies, a nursing major. "She thought too much about the fear of it that it actually happened."
Gillies tried to return for the championship run. Her right knee was not ready. Gillies subsequently became so caught up in pulling for her teammates, she actually forgot about her injury.
"I was just happy to be a part of this team," she says. "Even though I wasn't playing, once we got to the national championship, it was one of the best feelings ever."
MacDonald last season appeared in 13 games, including two starts, and was selected to the Northeast-10 Conference All-Rookie team. Hlebichuk says MacDonald, a biology major, was the River Hawks' best player in a recent scrimmage.
"She needed a year to develop, a year to gain some confidence," says Hlebichuk. "Her eyes at times last year were as big as dinner plates, (at seeing) the quickness and intensity of the college game."
"My goal is to step up as a leader, to help and support everyone," says MacDonald. "And just be a lot louder."
The 2010 field hockey title was the UMass Lowell's seventh Division 2 national title (men's ice hockey 1979, '81, '82; men's basketball '88, men's cross country '91; field hockey 2005). It followed three straight seasons of Hlebichuk's team losing in the national title game.
"It was a great season. We don't want to forget it," says Gillies. "But this is a new team, a new year. We have to work with what we have. We don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves.
"But in the end, that's what we want: Another national championship."