By Ed Brennen
Fans haven’t been able to attend UMass Lowell athletic events this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the River Hawks still have given them plenty of reasons to cheer.
In the semifinals of the Hockey East Tournament, the seventh-seeded River Hawks rallied from a 4-1 third-period deficit and shocked top-seeded Boston College in double overtime, 6-5. Sophomore forward Matt Brown scored the game-winning goal after 92 minutes of play, the second longest game in program history.
The River Hawks will face third-seeded UMass Amherst at the Mullins Center on March 20 at 7 p.m. UML will be seeking its fourth Hockey East crown, and first since 2017. The conference crown would also give the River Hawks an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
“We’re obviously very pleased to be moving on,” said UML Coach Norm Bazin, whose team has come from behind in all three of its Hockey East tournament wins. “This is game three of the playoffs for us. It’s exciting to be able to play for a championship this year. These guys are resilient.”
UML distance runner Kaley Richards, meanwhile, earned All-American honors in not one, but two sports in a three-day span.
At the NCAA Div. I Women's Indoor Track and Field Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Richards finished fourth in the mile with a personal-best time of 4 minutes, 36.26 seconds to become the program’s first Div. I All-American.
Two days later, Richards became the first All-American in the history of the UML women’s cross country program, as well. The public health graduate student from Lowell finished 30th in a field of over 200 runners in the 6 kilometer final at the NCAA Div. I Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma, with a time of 20:46.9.
“To finish off the weekend as a double All-American was an amazing accomplishment,” said UML Coach Gary Gardner. “This sealed up probably the best weekend in school history. I can't imagine anything better than this.”
And the UML men’s basketball team came one win away from clinching its first-ever NCAA Division I tournament berth. The sixth-seeded River Hawks won three straight games in the America East Conference tournament before falling to fourth-seeded Hartford in the title game, 64-50.
As a member of the UML cheerleading squad, sophomore Vanessa Paul would normally have been courtside for the men’s basketball team’s thrilling tournament run. Instead, she followed the team’s posts on Instagram and Snapchat. She also tuned in for their game at Hartford, which was nationally televised on ESPN2
“It gave us some school spirit while we’re all under our masks and staying at home,” said Paul, a biomedical engineering major from Lynn, Massachusetts. “Since we can’t go to games, we can still watch on TV and cheer them on while they’re out there representing UMass Lowell.”
Former players also enjoyed UML’s tournament run, even from overseas.
Antonio Bivins ’14, who was a senior guard on UML’s inaugural Div. I team, is currently playing professional basketball in Finland. The seven-hour time difference meant some late nights watching games online.
“I’ve been up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, yelling at my tablet,” he said. “I was loving every minute of it. I feel like a proud big brother watching those guys. I’m so happy for the players and the coaches.”
Bivins was among a group of former basketball players and team support staff who recorded good-luck messages to the River Hawks heading into the Hartford game. The three-minute video, which the Athletic Department shared on social media, included Patrick King ’88, co-captain of UML’s 1988 Div. II national championship team; Stacey Moragne ’06, a member of the UML Hall of Fame; Chad Holley ’15; Jahad Thomas ’18; Ryan Jones ’19; Griffin Lyon ’20; Christian Lutete ’20 and Stefan Borovac ’20.
“Congratulations on the playoff wins,” said Borovac, who was a forward and student assistant for the River Hawks. “It’s a huge achievement, a lot of years of hard work coming together, and we’re all proud of you guys here at home watching.”
Also watching was former Athletic Director Dana Skinner, who oversaw UML’s transition to Div. I before retiring in 2018.
“Despite the added pressures to win quickly in Division I, the men’s and women’s basketball programs have developed strong team cultures and never compromised their values along the way,” Skinner said. “It’s what makes watching Coach Duquette's team so enjoyable. They survived injuries and COVID and kept improving game after game.”
Jim Borodawka ’97, who played guard for the Div. II River Hawks, has literally had a courtside seat for the program’s Div. I ascent over the past eight years. Borodawka has worked as color commentator on the UML men’s basketball radio and TV broadcasts since the 2013-14 season.
The Lowell native was only able to broadcast six home games this season for ESPN3. During their tournament run, he cheered on the River Hawks from home like most other fans.
“The Division I transition was a daunting task, but they did it the right way. It’s been an incredibly successful story,” he said. “I certainly won’t ever forget what’s gone on the last two weeks, the way they played. It was kind of like our own little slice of March Madness at UMass Lowell.”