LOWELL -- It wasn't long ago that Alli Wood, Marissa Richards and Samantha Wise were track and field rivals at their respective Merrimack Valley Conference high schools.
Wood starred at Chelmsford High in cross country and middle distance events, while Richards did the same at Lowell High and Wise at Haverhill High. They competed against each other frequently and were certainly familiar with one another as runners.
But if you had asked any of them four years ago, they likely wouldn't have guessed their acquaintance would progress to the point it's at now.
Wood, Richards and Wise are not only teammates on the UMass Lowell women's track and field and cross country teams, they are also roommates and very close friends.
"It's definitely a unique experience to have two of my best friends be people I used to compete against," said Wood.
It definitely seems like it would be unique. But UMass Lowell's cross country and track and field programs have become a popular landing spot for talented local athletes, many of whom spent their high school years trying to beat each other. And now they're cheering each other on.
Sixteen members of the women's track and field team are from The Sun's readership area, while 19 on the men's team are from the area. For longtime UML coach Gary Gardner, that's all by design.
"When we made the transition to Division 1, one of the things we knew we had to do is keep good local talent home," said Gardner, in his 16th year.
"And if we can't land them, at least we give it as good of an effort as we can. We've really tried to come up with a plan to keep these kids here.
"Now that I've been here for quite some time, the hope is that the kids we have gotten go back and tell the next kid that their experience was what they hoped it would be."
Gardner estimated that 90 high school and cross country coaches across the state are UMass Lowell alumni, which has certainly been a major factor in the pipeline of local top-notch talent to UML. Once they get there, these athletes are thriving as River Hawks.
Wood recently ran to a school-record in the 800-meters at the John Thomas Terrier Classic at Boston University. She finished in a time of 2:09.78, which beat the previous record by more than two seconds.
"It's an event I've been working on for a while," said Wood. "I've been feeling a lot stronger based on my workouts, and I was put in a really competitive heat.
"I was a pretty strong runner in high school, but if you had told me as a freshman that I'd be running these times I wouldn't have believed you."
On the men's side, Burlington's Paul Hogan, a senior, set a record in the 3,000-meters at BU with a time of 8:06.45. Hogan erased the previous mark of 8:07.57, set by Carl Mease in 2003.
Last fall, Hogan won the America East Conference cross country individual championship and became the first UML athlete to qualify for the NCAA Championships since the school transitioned to Division 1.
"I think I've just been steadily improving in college every year, and it's hard to improve when you're competing at a high level," said Hogan. "Gary is such an optimistic coach. He sets the bar really high. He also cares about everyone equally, he doesn't play favorites. Sometimes you get an athlete who maybe didn't have the best times in high school, but they just needed someone to coach them correctly and get the best out of them."
The combination of Gardner's coaching style and having the opportunity to compete at the Division 1 level close to home has created an abundance of appeal to local athletes.
"I was looking at UMass Lowell, UMass Amherst and Northeastern," said senior graduate student John Fiorello, a Tewksbury product who competes in throwing events. "I knew (UMass Lowell) had a great engineering program, my dad went there and I knew the track program was better than at the other schools."
UML doesn't have its own indoor track facility. The River Hawks practice at Harvard twice a week and get some work in at their own outdoor turf area as long as the weather cooperates.
However, Gardner, who makes the commute to Lowell from Auburn, says none of that has hurt recruiting or athlete interest.
"Certainly, it would be great to have our own facility, and hopefully that's coming somewhere down the road," Gardner said. "It only impacts us for six or seven weeks, so it's not too bad. It's not ideal, but there are worse conditions than that. Harvard has been great and very welcoming with us."
It all seems to be working out quite well for the River Hawks. After a fall in which both the men's and women's cross country teams placed second at the America East Championships, the indoor track and field programs are posting excellent performances on a weekly basis.
"So far we've been able to achieve just about everything we've set out to do," said Gardner.