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UMass Lowell field hockey team is ready to host America East championship

The field hockey team is looking forward to hosting the America East championship tournament this weekend. (Courtesy UMass Lowell Athletics)

Kathryn Leeber
Connector Editor

After outbidding the State University of New York at Albany (UAlbany) and the University of Maine, the UMass Lowell field hockey team is set to host the 2017 America East conference championship starting Nov. 2. With possible home field advantage at stake, the River Hawks are looking to ensure a spot in postseason play this year.

With this in mind, UMass Lowell head coach Shannon Hlebichuk and the team say they are feeling the pressure to succeed. However, they are just as confident in their abilities as a Division I program after some setbacks in the transition from Division II to Division I. The River Hawks were fast-tracked to become a Division I team and were eligible for postseason play last year. They made it to the conference playoffs, but lost in the quarterfinals.

“I think for the first four years it was trying to find victories in the small pieces, and now everything is coming together and we’re able to win big games,” said Hlebichuk. “We’re really happy with where we’re at right now. We really try to build a schedule in August and September that will prepare us for October and November, but also give us an opportunity to evaluate each individual player and try new structures.”

Hlebichuk said she thinks the UMass Lowell’s “world-class facilities” including parking, numerous locker rooms in Costello Athletic Center, watering system on the field and press box capacity contributed to the selection for UMass Lowell to host the eight-team tournament.

Conference playoffs at Cushing Field are slated to begin on Thursday, Nov. 2 and run until the championship game on Sunday, Nov. 5. In the America East conference, field hockey is comprised of a West Coast division made up of four teams and an East Coast division consisting of five. The four teams from the West Coast automatically make the playoffs, while the top four from the East will secure spots, meaning one team will not qualify.

By the time the event rolls around, the River Hawks are aiming to be in a high-seeded spot to guarantee they can actually play in the games they are hosting. The No. 2 and No. 3 seeded teams from both divisions have an arguably harder weekend as they play Thursday, Friday and, if they move on, possibly Saturday and Sunday without a day off. The winner of the No. 1 and No. 4 seeded games will get a break on Friday and return to play on Saturday and perhaps Sunday.

Even with a relatively small number of teams to compete against, Hlebichuk and the squad are well aware of the challenges ahead. Hlebichuk said from top to bottom every team has a chance to win the conference title. Citing the River Hawks’ victory over the UAlbany, a nationally ranked team that was expected to win, as an example, she said to not underestimate any team.

Even with the obvious pressure of hosting the tournament and making sure the team qualifies, Hlebichuk and her players feel confident based on the team’s progress thus far. She said that she thinks they match up with their conference the best they ever have at this moment.

“It’s really competitive. Not only us as a team, but the people in our conference,” said senior forward Christa Doiron. “Everyone says, ‘Oh, just don’t come in last,’ but it’s really difficult when you’re playing against teams that really just want to win.”

The seniors on the team are looking to end their season on a high note. Having gone through the division change, they said they are looking forward to the team coming together to hopefully be a real contender in the tournament.

“It’s been a really fun journey. Each year we’ve gotten better and better. I think all of us are more on the same page now,” said senior midfielder Katie Luchino. “There’s just a young energy—a lot of our underclassmen are getting a lot of time. We’re all here for the same reason, because we want to win.”

With a slew of young players in the starting lineup, the River Hawks have a depth to their squad that extends beyond the upperclassmen. This allows the team to not have to rely on their more experienced players, but can try different formations and plays based on each individual’s strengths. Hlebichuk said she understands that the team will make mistakes, but said they have the ability and knowledge to learn and recover from them through watching game footage, which leaves the coach feeling optimistic about the group’s progress.

No matter where the River Hawks place — if they place — the team is eager for the opportunity to showcase their talents on their home field.

“It’s just exciting because this is a big deal for our school,” Luchino said. “A lot of people [are] going to be looking at us [and] there’s a lot of pressure on us, but I think we’re ready for it. We’re preparing for post-season play and we’re really looking forward to it.”

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