It wasn’t all that long ago that Nicole Hayner knew the thrill of hoisting a girls basketball championship trophy.
Heck, it was only last winter that Hayner and the Division I defending champion Bishop Guertin High School girls basketball program were in the finals again and competing for another title.
Now taking the court for the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the Bedford native is experiencing how the other half lives. The River Hawks entered winter break 0-11 overall, including a 103-52 loss at Oklahoma State and a 77-42 loss at Nebraska.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Hayner, known as Nikki by friends and teammates. “It’s definitely a time of transition here. We’re not winning and that’s tough for me. That’s tough for all of us.”
UMass Lowell, which has been in the Division II Northeast-10 Conference since 2000, jumped to Division 1 this fall as a member of the America East Conference. It replaced Boston University, which left the conference to join the Patriot League.
The move means growing pains for the River Hawks. Hayner knows it will take time for the program to adjust.
“It’s a work in progress,” the 5-foot-9 shooting guard/small forward said. “It’s not something that will change overnight, but we are getting better as a team every game, every practice.
“I’m excited to be a part of this program and the changes to come.”
Just a freshman, Hayner isn’t just a part of UMass Lowell’s future plans. Surprisingly she’s a big part of the River Hawks’ current scheme.
One of the first players off the bench early in the season, Hayner played her way into the starting rotation by Game 5 at Oklahoma State.
Her first start wasn’t as productive as she would have liked, going 1 for 5 from the field for three points. She would bounce back with a pair of 3-pointers off the bench in Nebraska and then post her second-highest point total of 16 points (6 for 13, four 3-pointers) in a start at Vermont.
“We spent a lot of time on the road so far this season,” said Hayner, who is majoring in exercise physiology with aspirations to become a physical therapist. “It’s been an amazing experience. Oklahoma State and Nebraska. Those are places other people only dream of playing at and I get to do it in my first college season.”
Despite the amazing journey that is Division I basketball, playing nine of 11 games on the road made Hayner appreciate returning home for winter break that much more.
“After that much traveling, coming home feels so good,” she said of getting quality time with her parents Cathleen and Mark, as well as her two older sisters Kristie and Kady. “It was relaxing to get home and just enjoy time with family and friends.”
Hayner and the River Hawks return to action Jan. 7 when Binghamton University invades Costello Athletic Center at UMass Lowell.
She’s hoping to carry over and improve on her 8.1 scoring average in the new year. Perhaps she can drop a few more double-digit games in the next three months, as was the case against Vermont, in the season- and Division I-opener against Providence College (5 for 18, 15 points) and during her season-high 18-point effort against Rhode Island (6 for 13, five 3-pointers).
“I’ve had a few good games so far,” said Hayner, who earned America East Conference Rookie of the Week honors after the URI performance. “I think I need to be more consistent in the second half of the season. It’s something we all need to focus on. The wins will come. We just need to stick together as a team and use everything we can as building blocks toward the future. This is a great school and an amazing team. I’m happy to be part of it all and contributing to this team.”