March 25, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

One Giant Leap

Lowell's Resurrection Season Falls One Win Shy of Frozen Four

by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — At the time, it was the most surprising result of the Hockey East season. Massachusetts-Lowell 7, Boston University 1. That was the final from the Tsongas Center on Nov. 5. Fans and media chalked it up as an anomaly, an aberration, a fluke. But for the River Hawks, it was a defining moment.

Sure, they expected to win a lot more games than the measly five they registered last season. They expected to be more competitive on a nightly basis. Beating a team like the Terriers at some point during the season wouldn't have been a huge shock. But the River Hawks didn't just beat them. They destroyed them. They dominated every facet of the game and outshot BU 44-16.

That game not only ended a three-game losing streak, but it propelled the River Hawks to an 8-1-0 run that established them as a true contender in Hockey East. They swept Maine in Orono the next weekend, they swept New Hampshire a couple weeks later, and then they beat Boston College just before winter break.

"I think from then, it was just a belief among our guys," senior Matt Ferreira said of the win over BU and the ensuing stretch. "That was a major turning point in the year. I think we realized that we could compete in Hockey East."

The River Hawks continued to believe. They matched a program-best by finishing second in the league and earned home ice in the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in 10 years. They made the NCAA tournament and won a tournament game for the first time in 16 years. All that just one year after the worst season in program history.

Of course, a lot of credit for the turnaround goes to first-year head coach Norm Bazin. The River Hawks' 19-win improvement over last season was the biggest under a first-year coach in Division I history.

All season long, players have credited Bazin for bringing a new mindset and a new work ethic to the team. They've credited him for wanting to win now and not settling for a "rebuilding season."

After one of the most successful seasons in program history came to an end Saturday night with a 4-2 loss to Union, Bazin credited the four seniors who had just played their final game in a UMass-Lowell jersey.

"I was very fortunate that I have a very strong group of seniors that were able to have an influence on buying in," Bazin said. "I think everybody followed. It's guys like Matt Ferreira that I'm gonna miss dearly. He's a battler, he's a warrior and he's a good two-way player. I think Michael Budd and David Vallorani did an admirable job, and certainly Timmy Corcoran was very good also. All four seniors were real catalysts in starting that trend.

"I think they were ready for a change. I was just glad I got the opportunity to guide them."

The changes weren't just in the win column or in the mindset of the team. They were in the entire UMass-Lowell community. The hiring of a new coach and the beginning of a new era generated some buzz before the season even started. Home wins over BU, BC and UNH added to it, and the support only grew from there.

The River Hawks averaged nearly 5,000 fans a game for the first time in program history. They drew a record crowd to the 13-year-old Tsongas Center — which was originally built as the home for the American Hockey League's Lowell Lock Monsters — back in December, and proceeded to sell out a few more games during the season.

The program became the source of pride and the university flagship that Marty Meehan wanted it to become when he took over as the school's chancellor in 2007, amid talk of the program being dropped as the result of political pressure.

"I was really excited for the university as a whole. We're so proud of our university. The fans were terrific. You could see it today," Bazin said, referencing the thousand or so Lowell fans who made the trip to Bridgeport, many on fan buses organized by the university. "It was such a great boost to have all these fans yelling for you. These kids are very proud of the school they attend. This is just a testament to their support.

"I'm very proud of our guys this year. I thought they played with a lot of passion, and they helped re-establish an identity for us."

So while the River Hawks are obviously disappointed with Saturday's loss, they know the future is bright. They know they return all but four players next season. They know Bazin can recruit — he already proved that during his eight years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Colorado College. Most of all, they know they can compete with anyone.

Even in the moments after Saturday's loss, while trying to comprehend the fact that he had just played his last collegiate game, Ferreira could see the big picture.

"I think we took great strides this year, obviously coming from five wins last year to make it to this game today," Ferreira said. "I think we're in great hands with coach Bazin and (junior captain Riley Wetmore) leading us next year. I'm just proud of all the guys right now. I think we have a great future."

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