By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By CHAZ SCOGGINS
LOWELL When it comes to improbable national championships, it would be tough for any school anywhere to top ULowell's NCAA Division II basketball title in 1988, won by a university with no basketball tradition in the most competitive and cutthroat sport in college athletics.
But, hey, the UMass Lowell men's soccer team has been the underdog before.
Actually, calling the university's soccer program an underdog would be overstating its reputation. Dog would be more accurate.
And then along came Ted Priestly.
Five and a half years ago UMass Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner was desperate. Twenty-two years of soccer at the school had produced an average of four wins a year. Oh, there had been a surprise ECAC Division II championship about 20 years ago, but that was won by a team with a losing record that had sneaked through the back door into the tournament only because it conflicted with the NCAA regionals and the best teams had accepted bids.
Among the 117 members of UMass Lowell's Athletic Hall of Fame, only two are soccer players: Carl Brune (Class of '59) and Stu McCord (Class of '84) ... and both of them enhanced their election chances by playing other sports.
The soccer pitch was so bad, one day an opponent showed up for a game, took one look at the pitch, and got back on the bus and drove away.
"We hadn't won a conference game in 10 years," Skinner recalled. "I went to (Chancellor) Bill Hogan and said: 'If we don't do something about soccer, we're going to wind up on the cover of Sports Illustrated like that Prairie View football team that lost something like 80 games in a row.'"
Hogan agreed. But Skinner had to find a way to upgrade the program without spending much money, an oxymoron in college sports.
When UMass Lowell advertised for a new coach, one of the applicants was Priestly, a former Westford Academy star who had played at UMass Amherst and had been an assistant coach at Wheaton College. He didn't even rate an interview for arguably the worst coaching job in Division II soccer.
"And rightly so," Priestly acknowledged 5 1/2 years later. "I was only 24. Then the guy who took the job left a month before practice started, and at that point they were scraping the bottom of the barrel."
Panning for gold would have been a better analogy, because the River Hawks found a nugget in Ted Priestly.
He immediately accepted the job without even taking a look at UMass Lowell's lumpy pitch or researching the university's ahem soccer tradition.
"I was just happy to be a head coach and to be close to home. Usually you have to go to someplace like Wyoming to get your first head coaching job," Priestly said. "And I was young enough, dumb enough, and naive enough to think we could be a competitive team right away."
The River Hawks went 12-26-1 in Priestly's first two years, then posted an 11-8 record in 1999 that earned him NEISL Coach of the Year honors. Most surprisingly, despite a budget that placed UMass Lowell in the bottom third of the league, he was convincing talented soccer players many of them from Greater Lowell to play for him.
"Dana was always up front and honest with me. I have no problem with that," said Priestly, who lives in Chelmsford with his wife Melanie and their 1-year-old son, Luke. "We don't complain. We just do the best with what we have. Nobody here is on a full scholarship. We spread it around, and everybody gets a little.
"It's not much, but it does help with the financial aid package. And we have a lot of other things to offer, including excellent academics and a wonderful campus, which is one of the reasons applications are up here when they're down at so many other schools.
"And now," he added, "we have gone from having the worst field to maybe the best when the new athletic complex was built."
The turning point for the program may have been last season when the River Hawks, playing six freshmen, stunned perennial national champion Southern Connecticut, 2-1.
"Everyone said: 'Well, on any given day ...' " Priestly said. "But then we had another given day, and another."
This season the River Hawks, who are 47-25-5 over the last four years under Priestly, tied Southern here and then upset the undefeated Owls on the road in the semifinals of the Northeast-10 Tournament.
An overtime 1-0 loss to Southern New Hampshire on a penalty kick in the NE-10 championship game last Sunday cost the River Hawks a certain berth in the NCAA Division II Tournament for the first time in UMass Lowell's history. Now Priestly and the River Hawks must wait anxiously until next Monday to see if they'll get an at-large bid.
"If you go on reputation, Southern Connecticut should be in the tournament," Priestly conceded. "But if you go on the facts, the facts say we should be in there because we tied them and beat them down there this year.
"And if we get in," Priestly added, "I'm still young enough, dumb enough, and naive enough to believe we can win it."