By From the Lowell Sun
By Lynn Worthy
The UMass Lowell men's basketball team didn't simply show up, walk onto the court and rip off 17 wins in its first 20 games on the way to moving into a tie for first place in the Northeast-10 Conference.
Adjustments were made. Individuals butted heads. Folks had to get on board. The process hasn't come without its share of speed bumps, but speed bumps can be gotten over. Roadblocks prevent progress. The River Hawks have avoided roadblocks.
"In October and November, just to change our mindset and the way we do all of our drills and the speed we play at and the defenses we put in, it took many, many hours and some dog days," UML first-year head coach Greg Herenda says. "I think our kids at some points didn't think this was all going to come. They didn't believe in it right away, and neither did I, quite honestly, because it was a major transition."
The River Hawks sure weren't expected to do much. The NE-10 coaches picked them 12th out of 15 teams in the preseason poll. Not only did it feature a new head coach, but UML had just five returning players (one sophomore, four juniors) and 10 new players (including eight freshmen).
Now, the River Hawks sit one game away from tying the school record for consecutive wins (14). They haven't lost since Dec. 3, and they haven't lost at home since Nov. 30.
"In all honesty, the chances of us getting this good this fast were very minimal," Herenda admits. "I knew we'd get better. I didn't realize how much better we'd get so fast. I think it's a credit to our kids. They work hard in practice. They listen. They're on time. They pay attention to detail. Now, they have a winning attitude."
As Herenda points out, the work done in the preseason laid the groundwork for this season's success.
Along with the sweat and hours spent in Costello Gymnasium, two decisions -- each made before the season -- stand as pivotal moves that set the tone for the season.
First, Herenda selected Max Kerman as the team's lone captain.
The only returning sophomore, Kerman averaged just over five points and just under four rebounds per game as a freshman despite battling an ankle injury. His game isn't flashy. His numbers won't leave you speechless, but he might take your breath away with the way he sacrifices his body and always seems to go full speed.
"I just try to lead by example," says Kerman, adding that he believes he is just one of several leaders on the team. "I'm not the biggest talker or the hype guy. I just try to go out there and work hard, pick these guys up when they're down. Go out there and work hard."
The second major decision of the preseason dealt with Kevin Carr, the top returning scorer from last year and one of four juniors on a team with no seniors.
In the middle of a practice prior to the first game, tensions rose and Herenda told Carr to leave if he didn't like the way things were going. Carr did.
"That's the competitive nature of the game," Carr says looking back. "That's what happened that day. That was nothing, really."
It may be "nothing" now, but it didn't have to work out that way. The story doesn't always turn out well. One of last year's top players gets into it with a new coach, leaves the team and the team slowly fractures.
Instead, Carr didn't play in UML's Tip-Off Tournament and is now one of the team leaders in assists, points and steals.
"Just like any new coach coming in, there was a transition period," Herenda says. "At first we had a tremendous relationship, but there was a period of time when we didn't see eye-to-eye, and it was his responsibility to see my eyes and he didn't. He was suspended, but I think he learned not only a lesson for the season but also a lifelong lesson that you've got to do what's right for the team and right for the coach. He's been a terrific player."
Carr has even come to enjoy the hard-nosed approach of his new coach and the atmosphere he has created, saying, "If he wasn't as hard on us, obviously we wouldn't be as good as we are. He has a lot to do with what we're doing around here, but all the guys are bringing energy, too. He's feeding us energy and we're just producing our own. It's a good mix right now."