By Ed Brennen
There’s something different about the River Hawks this fall.
For the first time in school history, the UMass Lowell athletics teams are competing as full-fledged NCAA Division I members. The transition from Division II – a move five years in the making – was completed in August with a vote by the NCAA’s board of directors.
From now on, all 17 River Hawk men’s and women’s teams are eligible for NCAA and conference postseason competition. No more self-studies, reclassification periods and moral victories. Let the games begin.
To celebrate the achievement – and map the road ahead – the university will host the Rise Up Celebration of Sport on Thursday, Oct. 12, at the historic Lowell Memorial Auditorium. The special event will feature tributes to iconic River Hawk triumphs, as well live musical performances by alum Jilly Martin and the UMass Lowell Gospel Choir.
The evening will also honor the 2017 Athletic Hall of Fame inductees: Jeff Daw (ice hockey ’96), Olympian Ruben Sanca (cross-country/track and field ’09, ’11), Jacqui Barrett (track and field ’10) and the 2005 field hockey team.
Athletic Director Dana Skinner and university officials will showcase the university's rich athletic legacy as well as its five-year Rise Up Athletics Strategic Plan.
"I am so proud of and thankful to the hundreds of people who have made this move possible during the last five years," Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said when the Div. I reclassification was finalized. "Every day UMass Lowell is reaching new heights in academics and research. (Former Chancellor) Marty Meehan's vision for the way Division I athletics could further raise this institution's profile will permanently and continually benefit this university and this community in the decades ahead."
The River Hawks are already making their mark at the Div. I level. The men’s soccer team, which captured the America East regular season crown a year ago (but was not able to compete in the league tournament because of reclassification rules), set a Cushing Field attendance record when 1,154 fans turned out for its 3-0 win over Harvard on Sept. 4.
“It's amazing to see that many fans here in the crowd," said coach Christian Figueroa, whose team eclipsed the attendance mark of 1,071 set last year by the women’s soccer team. “The support we receive from the UMass Lowell and Lowell communities is great.”
The River Hawks field hockey team, meanwhile, treated nearly 400 fans to a matinee thriller against 12th-ranked Stanford University on the Wicked Blue turf on Sept. 21. The teams were locked in a 3-3 tie before the Cardinal scored in the game’s final minute to eke out a 4-3 win.
“We knew that Stanford was going to bring their best, and we competed with them for 70 minutes,” said coach Shannon Hlebichuk.
While UML’s America East teams were ineligible for postseason tournaments during the transition period, the hockey team (which has played at the Div. I level since 1983) carried the banner of success for the university.
The River Hawks will unveil their 2016-17 Hockey East regular season and tournament championship banners, as well as their NCAA Tournament banner, on Friday, Oct. 6, when they host the University of New Hampshire at the Tsongas Center.
Then, on Homecoming Weekend (Oct. 13-14), the River Hawks will host a doubleheader with nonconference foe Nebraska-Omaha.
The River Hawks still enjoyed plenty of success during the four-year reclassification period. The men’s cross-country team was the first to win a regular-season America East crown. And the River Hawks enjoyed notable wins against established Div. I teams such as Boston College (men's basketball), Cincinnati, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech (baseball), and Georgetown and St. Bonaventure (softball).
Other achievements included field hockey student-athlete Kelly Freitas being named the 2016 America East Woman of the Year; increases every semester in the overall student-athlete grade point average, reaching 3.21 in the spring of 2017; the signing of an apparel deal with Under Armour; the construction of new facilities for academic service, athletic training, field hockey, soccer and lacrosse; and the renovation of the Tsongas Center for basketball.
UMass Lowell joins 350 other colleges and universities from 49 states (Alaska’s the exception) competing at the NCAA Div. I level in 2017-18. UMass Lowell and UMass Amherst are the state’s only public Div. I institutions.
As a member of the America East Conference, the River Hawks compete against the University of Vermont, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Maine and the University of Hartford, as well as Stony Brook University, Binghamton University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University at Albany, SUNY.
America East welcomed UMass Lowell as a league member in 2013 and worked closely with the campus throughout the transition.
“The impressive academic profiles of the member institutions, the quality and structure of the athletics programs, the range of schools spanning the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and the proximity of the schools to UMass Lowell have made America East an ideal fit for our campus,” Skinner said.