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River Hawks’ Goal: Build For a Bright Division I Future

DI Boosts Pride, Raises Challenges for Student Athletes

UMass Lowell Image by Bob Ellis
Division I games have been challenging but motivating for the River Hawks, led by student athletes like volleyball captain Carolyn Eddy, foreground. Photo by Bob Ellis

By Julia Gavin

Excitement and determination are fueling the River Hawks as they navigate a bumpy first season as Division I student athletes. While they’re enjoying updated facilities, traveling to new cities for games and the prestige of competing at the highest level of college athletics, they are also facing tough opponents in the demanding America East conference. 

“When I first heard about the move, I didn't know what to expect, but we couldn't wait to make the jump,” says Alex Sindoni, senior business administration major and captain of the men’s soccer team. “I’m glad to finally get the chance to prove that I can play at the Division I level. We knew it was going to be hard, we just didn’t know how hard. But with a couple of wins, we’ve proven we can compete.”

Sindoni’s team, which left Division II highly ranked after years of team-building and success, were the first River Hawks to win a game this year. Coach Christian Figueroa '06 says the team’s attention to detail and positive attitude will help them succeed. 

“We try to pick out the good and the bad of each game. Although the results may not always be in our favor, if we can improve a few things in each game, it’s a small victory that will help down the road,” says Figueroa, who sees team leaders like Sindoni as vital to the University’s move to Division I. “They’re embracing the change and taking this challenge head on. This group of guys will be able to come back as alumni and help the young players understand the commitment needed to compete at this level.”

As exciting as the move is, it has made several student athletes reassess their approaches to the season. Elisabeth Monty, a track and field athlete, achieved All-American status in fours events last year and would likely add more accolades in her senior year if she remained in Division II. With the jump, Monty and her fellow River Hawks are not eligible for post-season competition this year. She was disappointed at first, but has seen a shift as the season progresses.

“We’re beginning to see the benefits of going up to Division I, with the most prominent change being the increase in competition,” says Monty, a nursing student. “It’s forced me to re-evaluate my goals as a student athlete and adjust to the new competition and schedule. I’m looking forward to the new group of athletes I’ll be running against.”
Building Seasons Ahead for River Hawks

Coach Gary Gardner’s cross country and track and field teams have experience at the Division I level, competing in several meets each season with teams they’ll now face in the same conference. That’s made the elevation less of a shock for his athletes, but it still requires work for the team and coaches.

“We’ve discussed being patient with the move. But since our women’s team was second at the New England Championships last year and our men’s Cross Country has won the title three times in the last seven years, we want to continue to be competitive with Division I schools,” says Gardner. “We’ll step up to not only be competitive in New England but to be one of the dominant teams. That’s going to be a process over a period of years, but our past successes have given us a great launching point.” 

Carolyn Eddy, captain of the volleyball team, also sees the next few seasons as building opportunities for her teammates. 

“The season has been pretty tough, but we’ve held our own and it’s inspiring to see the team come together,” says Eddy, an exercise physiology major. “When I first heard we were moving to Division I, I leapt with joy. I never imagined getting to play teams like Harvard or Marist, but it can be difficult as a senior. I tell the freshmen that they’re very lucky to play on a Division I team for four years. The program is developing and I see great things ahead as we’re all learning so much.”

The women’s basketball team came in fourth in the Northeast-10 conference last year, but graduated seven players in the spring. The new players, including nine freshmen, will rebuild the team focused on Division I play.

“As the only senior on my team, it's an honor to be the first Division I graduating class,” says Lauren Fiola, a business administration major. “We definitely have our work cut out for us playing teams like Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Seton Hall, but we’re all mentally and physically prepared for the challenges that face us.”

Even after a tough game, the optimism and determination for a bright Division I future is a focus for River Hawks like Monty.

“My team is ready to step up to the plate and show our conference – and the rest of Division I – that UMass Lowell has been ready to compete at this level for quite some time.  On the track, we will be right there with to our competitors as we cross that finish line, hopefully ahead of them.”