By David Pevear
LOWELL -- When the ball went up Nov. 8 in Ann Arbor, and 12,707 fans were roaring about having just seen the University of Michigan's 2013 Final Four banner raised to the rafters of the Crisler Center, UMass Lowell senior guard Akeem Williams believed his team would win.
"We always think we can win," Williams said recently. "That's the way you have to go into the game. If you go into the game thinking you're going to lose, you're done right there."
The River Hawks, of course, did not win that night at Michigan. Nor were they expected to even have a prayer of winning. They were brought to Ann Arbor specifically because they were deemed a safe bet not to spoil Michigan's banner-raising party. For the UMass Lowell athletic department, it was great exposure and a big payday in a brave new world for the River Hawks.
A basket by Williams to begin the second half even put UMass Lowell up by two points and set off a restless stir in the big arena. Nature then ran its course and big-time Michigan won 69-42 over a team playing its first men's basketball game as a Division 1 program.
Told of Williams convincingly voicing his belief that UMass Lowell each game will win against the considerable odds it faces during its difficult D1 baptism, sports psychologist Jim Graves said, "I absolutely believe him."
"Any athlete worth their salt is focused in the moment, on the process. What they can do. Their shot. Their defense. They are there to compete," Graves said. "If they are not focused (on the moment) and are thinking about the outcome, or thinking, 'There is no possible way we can beat Michigan,' they're not going to win games even against Division 2 teams."
Reality of the situation
After the band stopped playing and the confetti was swept from the Tsongas Center lobby following the festive announcement in February that UMass Lowell's athletic program was headed to Division 1 to join the America East Conference, it was on to the reality of many early defeats.
Everyone knew the transition to Division 1 would be harsh. Other than its long-standing Division 1 hockey program, UMass Lowell's athletic program is still made up almost entirely of athletes recruited to a highly successful Division 2 program. Without the lure of league and NCAA tournament play, for which the River Hawks are ineligible during the NCAA-mandated four-year transition period, recruiting Division 1 athletes is challenging at this point.
So returning athletes accustomed to winning a large share of their games in Division 2 have had to withstand losing almost all of their games while laying a foundation for UMass Lowell's athletic ambitions.
The men's and women's basketball teams are a combined 1-19, with that lone victory being the men's 73-45 victory over Division 3 Mount Ida College of Newton.
Sports psychologist Jim R. Graves, Ph.D. said of UML Division I athletes, "at the end of the day, these athletes are feeling pretty much that they can compete on this level, just giving it more time in terms of recruiting."
These basketball teams won a combined 33 games last season as Division 2 programs.
"It's tough at times. Losing isn't fun," said Williams, who certainly is a Division 1-level talent. "But we work hard and try to get better every day. It's a challenge. I like a challenge."
During the fall season, the school's soccer teams, field hockey team and women's volleyball team were a combined 6-72-2 against D1 opponents.
"Right from the beginning, we were truthful with our players about the level of competition they were up against," said UMass Lowell field hockey coach Shannon Hlebichuk. "We never put unrealistic expectations on them. So even if they didn't feel successful in wins and losses, we tried to make them feel successful in other ways."
This shifting of goals was dramatic for a field hockey program that won NCAA Division 2 national titles in 2005 and 2010 and reached the title game six other times under Hlebichuk, including last year when it finished 19-4.
In Year One in Division 1, the field hockey team finished 2-16.
One expects every sport to be faster at a higher level. But field hockey in Division 1 is supersonic compared to the game the River Hawks were accustomed to playing. The FieldTurf on which UMass Lowell had played its Division 2 games was replaced by much faster AstroTurf. "Essentially they had to learn to play a different sport," said Hlebichuk.
Junior midfielder Chelsea Chronopoulos of Tyngsboro dealt with the distress of losing by imagining herself 10 years from now returning to UMass Lowell as a proud alum happy to see what she and her teammates helped create.
"You have to find it inside yourself to realize you're working toward something bigger than yourself," said Chronopoulos.
Hlebichuk, whose program is being fast-tracked to become eligible for postseason play in Year 3 (2015), has a degree in psychology that she put to good use this fall.
"The coaching staff never let the players go down a negative road," said Hlebichuk. "We thanked them for their work ethic and their persevering. The players were disappointed, feeling they were letting us down. We actually felt they were in many cases overachieving. The scoreboard just didn't reflect that."
The losing did not dim Chronopoulos' competitive spirit. She still wanted "to be the first to a ball, to get that ball across the 50, to do that for my team." She will be a captain next year and is "fired up" because Chronopoulos says she now better understands how to prepare for Division 1 opponents.
The men's soccer team likewise was poised to be a major player nationally in Division 2 this fall after reaching the NCAA East final in 2012 and finishing 15-6-1. Its Division 1 baptism turned out to be 3-14-1.
"We were built for a very good year this year had we stayed in Division 2," said UMass Lowell men's soccer coach Christian Figueroa without a hint of regret. "To the players' credit, I think they were more focused on helping the university climb to Division 1 than thinking 'what if' we were still in Division 2. That says a lot about their character."
The character of the UMass Lowell women's volleyball team was tested to the extreme. That team went 0-26 this fall after finishing 11-14 in its final Division 2 season in 2012 (39-37 over its final three Division 2 seasons). Coach Karen McNulty, who played Division 1 volleyball at Boston College and was head coach at Northeastern before becoming UMass Lowell's head coach 20 years ago, knew what was coming.
"I did not think we would not win a game, though," she said. "I also didn't think we would win five. I was hoping for one or two."
Proud of her players' eagerness to compete, and excited about the future, McNulty nonetheless conceded she felt guilty about accepting losing at times. "There were plenty of times we just were not good enough," she said. "We had 13 players on our team. St. John's had 13 players that were over 6 feet tall."
Athletes remain upbeat
Despite all the losses, Graves has detected no discouragement or divisiveness among athletes at UMass Lowell, where he has taught a course on sports and exercise psychology for 12 years. The UMass Lowell athletes he has spoken to during this transition period exhibit "the greatest amount of mental toughness."
"Maturity and perspective to bounce back. Unwavering. Optimistic," Graves said in giving his definition of "mental toughness."
Graves was a consultant to the Division 1 men's ice hockey team when Blaise MacDonald was head coach. He is not working with any UMass Lowell teams at present, but has spoken to several athletes in his class and around campus. Many are measuring up to the Division 1 competition better than they anticipated, he said.
"Some things have happened at the ends of games. Some mistakes. Maybe the talent difference finally shows up in the final score," said Graves. "But at the end of the day, these athletes are feeling pretty much that they can compete on this level, just giving it more time in terms of recruiting."
In the meantime, coaches use more nuanced measurements than won-loss records to gauge progress. UMass Lowell men's basketball coach Pat Duquette frequently talks about "how" his team played. Figueroa similarly said that his staff "emphasized style of play and the development of our players."
UMass Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner said the won-loss record "is about what we expected" and that he is "proud" of the manner in which UMass Lowell athletes have prepared and competed. "They were handed a difficult situation," said Skinner. "These are full Division 1 rosters they're competing against. But I've talked to a lot of schools that have gone through this. Not one has regretted the decision (of upgrading to Division 1). In the end, they all thought it helped the school immeasurably."
Skinner for now gives frequent pep talks. He tells athletes they will someday be proud to have set their alma mater on this path to greater prestige and visibility.
"That probably isn't going to mean that much to them right now, if tomorrow night they're up against Nebraska," Skinner joked.