From hockey to hoops to indoor track, student-athletes give fans reasons to cheer

Students cheer on the UML hockey team
The fourth-ranked UMass Lowell hockey team begins its quest for a fifth straight trip to the Hockey East tournament finals this weekend at the Tsongas Center.

By Ed Brennen

After a superb 22-9-3 regular season, the fourth-ranked UMass Lowell hockey team takes center stage this weekend when it hosts the University of New Hampshire in the Hockey East best-of-three quarterfinal round at the Tsongas Center.

Led by senior forward Joe Gambardella, junior forward C.J. Smith and freshman goalie Tyler Wall, the top-seeded River Hawks are looking to make it five straight appearances in the Hockey East championship game (played Saturday, March 18 at TD Garden in Boston), which they hope to win for the third time since 2013.

As the program celebrates its 50th anniversary season, Coach Norm Bazin’s team led Hockey East in attendance for the second straight year, averaging a school-record 5,757 fans per game.

“We are fortunate to have such great fans,” Bazin says. “It’s a real credit to the people of Lowell and the surrounding Merrimack Valley communities that support UMass Lowell hockey.”

While the hockey team draws the biggest crowds, there have been many other student-athletes making headlines for the River Hawks this winter.

Thomas Rules the Court

On the hardwood, two members of the men’s basketball team — redshirt-junior Jahad Thomas and freshman Rinardo Perry — earned America East All-Conference honors.

Jahad Thomas drives around a defender Image by Bob Ellis
Junior men's basketball player Jahad Thomas, an America East All-Conference First Team selection, drives around an opponent.

Thomas became the program’s first All-Conference First Team selection after leading the River Hawks with 18.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-2 guard/forward from Williamsport, Pa., led America East with a field goal percentage of 58.9 and was second in the league in rebounding and assists.

In a Jan. 8 win at Binghamton, Thomas scored a career-high 28 points to become the 40th player in program history to surpass 1,000 career points — and the first to do it at the Division I level. Six days later, Thomas recorded the first triple-double in program history with 19 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists in a win over Hartford. He finished the season tied for first in the nation in triple-doubles with two.

Meanwhile, Perry, a 6-4 guard from Washington, D.C., was named to the conference’s All-Rookie Team after averaging 4.3 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. He recorded a season-high 16 points and five assists in a win over Fisher on Jan. 28.

In their final season of the Div. I transition, Coach Pat Duquette’s River Hawks finished 11-20 overall, 5-11 in America East.

For the women’s basketball team, junior forward Kayla Gibbs earned America East All-Conference Third Team honors after leading the River Hawks in scoring (12.0 points per game) and rebounding (8.4 boards per game). The Teaneck, N.J., product led all of America East in field goal percentage (59.1), as well as total rebounding and defensive rebounds. Gibbs also reached double-figures in scoring in 19 consecutive games, the longest streak in the program’s Div. I era.

Soaring to New Heights

In indoor track and field, the men’s and women’s teams also turned in several record-setting performances this winter.

A trio of juniors — pole vaulter Vladimir Popusoi, high jumper Rino Tonelli and middle distance runner Kathryn Loughnane — earned All-East honors with strong performances at the ECAC/IC4A Championships at the Boston University Track and Tennis Center on March 4-5.

sophomore sprinter Chelsea Owusu races to victory Image by Bob Ellis
River Hawks sophomore Chelsea Owusu sets a school record in the women's indoor track 400 meters.

Popusoi took third place by clearing the bar at 16 feet, 6¾ inches. Earlier this season at the USATF New England Championships at Harvard University, Popusoi set a new school record by clearing 16 feet, 8¾ inches. It was the third time he set a new school record this season.

Tonelli took fifth with a high jump of 6 feet, 8¼ inches. It was the third-best height cleared in the competition, but Tonelli placed fifth based on attempts.

Loughnane, meanwhile, finished third in the women’s 1,000 meters in 2 minutes, 50.19 seconds — her second fastest time ever.

At the America East Indoor Track and Field Championships on Feb. 24-25 at BU, the UML men turned in their strongest performance ever, finishing second to 12-time defending champion Albany.

The River Hawks got a trio of first-place finishes: Popusoi in the pole vault; the distance medley relay team of junior Daniel Schmith, sophomores Kevin Saccone and Sean Munnelly and freshman Grant Hauver; and the 4-by-800-meter relay team of Munnelly, senior Kevin Powers, sophomore Jackson Gallagher and Schmith.

On the women’s side, sophomore sprinter Chelsea Owusu set a school record in the 400 meters with a time of 54.70 seconds, which was good for second. The River Hawks finished fifth in the team standings.