With 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter of the America East semifinals, UMass Lowell had the attention of the lacrosse universe.
What happened in those next 10 minutes sent the River Hawks home, their season finished. But the previous 50 minutes is what could help propel the fledgling Division 1 program into uncharted territory.
Heading into their fifth season of existence, the River Hawks just watched their first big senior class graduate. The heart of the program, built primarily of Canadian indoor lacrosse players, set in motion the rise of the program. After playing above .500 in the regular season for the first time in 2018, the River Hawks have a taste of success.
That’s hardly a surprise to Ed Stephenson. After all, he’s been preparing for the program to soar.
“If you consider three steps, we did step two last year,” the UMass Lowell head coach said. “We were competitive in every game; we could have won every game. This year, we’re looking to take the next step, which is the big one where you’re good enough to compete at the highest level. We’re going to make that step and try to do it this year. Definitely next year, but we’re going to try this year.”
The program hasn’t targeted local players until recently, with most top recruits already committing to programs outside the region before the River Hawks could put themselves on the radar.
Now a few years in, Lowell has attracted good players from across southern New Hampshire and the Middlesex Region, plus some Connecticut talent.
It’s a far cry from the initial approach of recruiting in Canada, an unorthodox approach for a program that needed ready-to-go talent.
“We initially got some of our top recruits outside New England, because starting a new program, those guys are hesitant,” said Stephenson, who has a background in indoor lacrosse. “We got guys from outside … to give us a boost right away. The past two years, we could get some really good New England guys.
“Initially, our guys out of state carried the flag for us the past two years, but our recruiting has improved in the New England area.”
Rising sophomore midfielder Kyle LaForge (Tyngsboro, Mass.) was one of the first uber-local recruits to be recruited by UMass Lowell. He got some looks as a sophomore at Tyngsboro High before the early recruiting rules came into place.
“I don’t think they were there to watch me,” he said. “We were playing a very good team. But I had a very good game that day and they texted my coach and said they were interested, but I couldn’t talk to them until my junior year.”
He graduated as the No. 12 goal-scorer in Massachusetts high school history (223). With his only other offer coming from the University of Hartford, he said he fell in love with the Lowell program. And helping build a program was an attractive opportunity, as it has been for several young players.
“It really started off with the seniors that graduated,” he said. “They set the platform for us. Now it’s starting to get growing and we can start running.”
Another sophomore midfielder, Dom Giachello (Somers, Conn.), had the same aspirations to grow with a young program.
“I could see what Coach Stephenson was building,” he said. “I could see a great culture at Lowell. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly. In my mind I knew I could make a contribution as a freshman, but also I’d watch their games and saw a lot of potential in the team. I knew coming here, a lot of people hadn’t heard of them, and I wanted to help make a name for the program.”
The recruiting rules changing while the River Hawks were in their season also put them in a unique position. In April 2017, the NCAA Division 1 Council approved a proposal that prohibited programs from contacting recruits until Sept. 1 of their junior year of high school.
As a new program, Lowell didn’t have many younger recruits the way a powerhouse such as Maryland or North Carolina or other traditional programs did.
With those early recruits grandfathered in, the market for unrecruited high school juniors and seniors was ripe for the plucking.
While the other programs were looking toward new high schoolers, the River Hawks were quietly, at least in New England, cornering that market.
“The early recruiting, the guys who did that, they made mistakes,” Stephenson said. “We benefited because when we were starting out, everyone was kind of done with the late bloomers.
“Some of those programs that are established, they’re still not caught up. They have guys committed for a couple of years. That will impact them next year when the recruiting cycle catches up to them. But we’ve benefitted as a new program, there are tremendous players who don’t shine until late their junior year.”
Before LaForge and Giachello were even on UMass Lowell’s radar, Blaine McMahon, a midfielder from New Milford, Conn., was being recruited by several schools but saw Lowell as a program with the biggest upside.
He was contacted going into his senior year at New Milford High School, where he’d finish as a 230-point scorer, while playing for the Connecticut Hurricanes over the summer.
“It’s had its ups and downs but has been very good,” McMahon said. “We improved greatly this past year. It’s been fun growing as a team, and we’re looking to keep making progress.”
Heading into his senior season, he’s one of the players expected to step up as a lead- er with that first class gone. He started six of 16 games as a junior, contributing seven points and 31 groundballs.
For some players, the ability to stay close to home was appealing — and a new option. With just Holy Cross, UMass and Harvard as the in-state Division 1 options before UMass Lowell and Boston University started their programs, most Div. 1-caliber Bay Staters ended up out of state, sometimes far from home.
That left slim local pickings for Stephenson, at least at the start.
“A lot of teams already had guys committed all the way down to freshmen and sophomores,” he said. “I had to go to a non-traditional area where guys don’t commit as freshmen and sophomores. The logical place to go was Canada. We got a lot of our key players from Canada our first year.”
The first year of the program had its challenges. As far as new programs go, Lowell had specifically a long ways to go.
While other newer programs such as BU, Marquette, Michigan and Richmond had the “oomph” behind their school names to draw in talent for the second or third year, the River Hawks, barred from postseason play until their third season, were in a different spot.
The first season finished at 1-13. After going 4-12 their second year, it seemed the River Hawks might be ready to make a leap, but injuries made year three a repeat of the 4-12 record.
But in the fourth year, things changed.
To go 5-3 on home turf was a step in the right direction, showing that Lowell had become a tougher place to play. A win over Quinnipiac, needing overtime to beat a perennial conference champion, set the tone for what became the River Hawks’ most successful season to date, ending with an 8-8 record after a competitive, 15-10 loss to Albany in the America East semifinals.
“The biggest thing is the leadership,” Stephenson said. “When you have a class like that that has to be leaders all four years, you look to see the next group; it’s their first test to be leaders.”
“I think we can do as well as we did last year,” LaForge said. “We lost a lot of players who played four years. They had the most experience, but we did have a lot of young guys who played last year who got experience.”
Recruiting is about to change for every program again with the new shot clock rule in place.
Without knowing what they had until recently, the River Hawks still were learning exactly what they needed to do to get to the next level. Now, with four years in the books, Stephenson and his staff finally are in a position to recruit based on need.
The way the team already is built, he likes what they have incoming for the soon-to-be fast-paced rendition of the college game.
“If they had just done the shot clock and not changed the box, I don’t think it would have changed the game a lot,” he said.
“Now there could be (changes); you might see more teams go with two-way middies.”
“Those guys, if they worked hard this summer, could have a big role on defense and offense.”
With Jon Phillips and Sean Tyrrell — the program’s leading scorers, and both recruited out of western Canada — part of the group of 11 to graduate, that next wave will be heavily relied on to take the reins.
“We did lose a great senior class,” McMahon said. “That being said, I still believe in the teammates we have now. Our coaches have put us in a position to have the guys we need.”
The midfield is strong, with Daniel Cuzzi (Reading, Mass.) ready to take a big role, Cory Highfield returning from redshirting, and Austin Lane back, plus Giachello, whose season was slowed by injuries.
“When he was in there, he played really well,” Stephenson said. “It’s good that he’s coming back.”
Attack remains a question mark, as does defense and the faceoff, but the program is in a position to identify needs after focusing on building a foundation for years.
Cuzzi, as a freshman, was one of the River Hawks’ first standout local recruits with 23 points. Hyde Park, Mass., native Harry Morrill is another local sophomore who should get more time.
Last year, the River Hawks brought in 10 freshmen — six were from New England, the largest amount of locals to that point.
This year, they will host seven freshmen, all of them from New England. The group includes standout FOGO Pat Kaveny (Foxboro, Mass.) and Groton-Dunstable High School specialist Liam McDonough. Two elite New Hampshire defenders, Drew Muzzey and Doug Barker, also join the program.
It’s the first class the River Hawks have been able to recruit for their individual needs instead of building from the ground up.
“Until we established a reputation, we went outside of New England. In the past two years, we put a strong emphasis on it,” Stephenson said. “We wanted to make sure we had that presence, but we felt like the past two years we had a much stronger interest from those guys.”
From a program starting from scratch and searching for talent, the River Hawks have come a long way going into Year 5. It’s taken plenty of time, and smart recruiting, for UMass Lowell to think of itself as a competitive program.
With the structure in place, though, the sky might be the limit.
“I think we have the same confidence we’ve always had,” McMahon said. “We can play with teams like Albany. We can keep improving from the past year.”