By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By ROB BRADFORD
LOWELL It has been 18 years since Kathy O'Neil was first treated to those opening-game butterflies as the head coach of the UMass Lowell women's basketball team.
Two hundred and ninety-two wins later, those critters still are flying around.
"I still have that spring to my step when I get out of bed in the morning," said O'Neil, whose No. 11 has been retired by St. Michael's College, where she starred in the early 1980's. "I still get nervous, but nervous isn't bad as long as you know what it's about."
Those early-season nerves this season, as is the case every year, stem partially from the uncertainty of what lies ahead. Can the River Hawks keep pace with the likes of the nation's preseason No. 1 team, Bentley? Will an influx of freshman point guards open up UML's offense?
This time around, however, O'Neil at least takes some comfort in knowing she has four seniors on a team that is coming off a 15-13 campaign which was accomplished without any seniors.
Playing the role of the senior leaders this season will be guard (and captain) Meghan Hamilton, center Dahima James, and forwards Kendra Lund and Itxaso Mallaviaberrena.
"I definitely think having seniors is an important factor," said O'Neil. "I will say this, I think this team has worked very hard. And for the underclassmen to see the veteran leadership is very important."
Not only do the River Hawks have actual fourth-year players this season, but they also return their entire team from a year ago. It was a club that showed flashes of excellence last season, coming up just eight points of catching both Northeast-10 Conference powers Bentley and AIC during the teams' regular season meetings.
Expected to supply a good deal of the River Hawks' offensive firepower again will be their leading scorer from last year, Hamilton (11.4 points per game), and junior guard/forward Dragana Rabota (10.5 ppg).
Both Hamilton and Rabota, who O'Neil describes as "finally having brakes" after reconstructive knee surgery, shouldn't have to repeat their role as part-time point guard thanks to newcomers Jelena Spiric (Belgrade, Serbia), Mariette Guillaume (Montreal) and Erica Gunn (Dorchester), who is out until second semester because of an injured leg. Freshman forward Emily Koras (Hillsboro, NH) should also be a factor in her first year.
But, cautions O'Neil, "They are freshmen and freshmen make freshmen mistakes. We will certainly have to live with that."
Entering tonight's season opener at Franklin Pierce, the River Hawks plan on starting Spiric at the point, with Hamilton and Rabota filling the shooting guard/small forward roles.
Also being counted on to help UML improve on its 65 points-per-game average of a season ago will be junior guards Sarah Udvardi and Breneley Bodden, who both averaged more than 20 minutes per contest in 2001-02.
On the front line, Lund figures to start for Mallaviaberrena, who is out for three weeks because of a broken nose. The 6-foot-2 James, who led the team with 7.1 rebounds per game, will anchor the middle for UML.
The entire River Hawks squad will be tested early and often as they open up with six of their first seven games on the road. The only Costello Gymnasium contest during that stretch is on December 7 (2 p.m.) against Bentley.
"We will definitely have more depth than last year, and I think we'll probably be a little faster," said O'Neil. "Hopefully we've improved from last year."