UMass Lowell and Minnesota State will face off on Saturday evening in the NCAA tournament's Northeast Regional semifinal at the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. The two schools are separated by nearly 1200 miles, but the similarities between the two schools are striking.
In terms of profile, both were founded in the 1800s as Normal schools for educating teachers. Both are large public institutions in their state. UMass Lowell is the second largest university in Massachusetts; Minnesota State is the third largest in Minnesota. But both schools are also overshadowed a bit in their own state by more nationally-known institutions.
Athletically, both schools were Division II athletic departments with hockey programs that played Division I until Lowell made the full jump to Division I in 2013. Both hockey programs were extremely successful at the Division II before making the jump to Division I. In fact, Minnesota State(then Mankato State) and UMass Lowell met each other three consecutive years in the Division II national tournament in 1979, 1980, and 1981.
But the more interesting similarity between the two schools is the success in their recent history that has brought them to Worcester this coming weekend. By coincidence, each school helped play a small role in bringing the other to that point.
The last times these two programs met was in 2010-2011, and 2011-2012, with each hosting the other as part of a two-year scheduling agreement. That wasn't that long ago. Seniors this year would have played in both series. But compare both programs back then to where they are now, and it seems a lifetime ago.
The first of the two series was played over Thanksgiving weekend of 2009, with Minnesota State traveling out east to Lowell for a pair of games. Lowell held a pair of leads early in the first game, but melted down in the second period and ended up falling 8-3. The next night was closer, but Minnesota State's Chase Grant--who will be playing for the Mavericks this weekend--scored a third period goal break a 2-2 tie and give the Mavericks a 3-2. The two losses weren't particularly painful, or surprising for the River Hawks. They ended up being losses #4 and #5 in what would turn into a 13-game losing for the River Hawks. Umass Lowell finished the season with a record of 5-24-4 record; the worst record in program history. After the season, UMass Lowell fired head coach Blaise MacDonald and hired coach Norm Bazin.
The next season, the River Hawks, under the direction of their new coach, began their season with a pair of games on the road in Mankato. Though little was expected of Lowell with a new head coach and much of the talent from last year's disastrous season returning, it became apparent that UMass Lowell and Minnesota State were two programs headed in opposite directions. UMass Lowell took commanding three goals leads in both games, and while Minnesota State scored late in both to improve the final score, the games were not as competitive as the final score looked. By the end of the season, UMass Lowell had completed the country's biggest year-to-year turnaround, improving their record to 24-13-1 and earning their first bid to the NCAA tournament in 16 years.
The Mavericks, meanwhile, sputtered to a 12-24-2 record; the second worst record in the school's D-1 history. After the season, Troy Jutting was removed as head hockey coach and the school hired Mike Hastings to replace him. The next season, Hastings pulled off the same one-year turnaround that Bazin did the year prior, improving Minnesota State's record to 24-14-3 and taking Minnesota State to the national tournament for the first time in a decade.
This time when these two teams face off against each other, the circumstances will be much different. Instead of one program bottoming out, they will both be looking to take an historic step forward. UMass Lowell has hopes of taking home their first national title after making a run to last year's Frozen Four. Minnesota State will be looking to get their first ever win in the big tournament. Regardless of the outcome on Saturday, after a shaky past, the future for both program's looks extremely bright.