LOWELL -- The weather in Division 1 certainly isn't any better.

UMass Lowell baseball players on Tuesday trudged through shin-deep snow to the school's plowed turf soccer field, where for almost two hours they practiced hitting the cutoff man and turning two as temperatures ticked into the low 20s.

"We have to get outside," said UMass Lowell coach Ken Harring.

The River Hawks' Division 1 baseball debut was at that time scheduled for Friday afternoon against Monmouth University in the Wright State Invitational at the Team USA training complex in Cary, N.C.

The UMass Lowell baseball team practices amid the snow and cold in Lowell earlier this week. Weather in the mid-Atlantic region has postponed their
The UMass Lowell baseball team practices amid the snow and cold in Lowell earlier this week. Weather in the mid-Atlantic region has postponed their scheduled opener this week in North Carolina. (SUN/BOB WHITAKER)

February's inescapable storminess has postponed that, though Harring was hoping to play at some point this weekend. The River Hawks over three days in North Carolina are scheduled to play Monmouth, Michigan State, Wright State and St. Joseph's.

The schedule then calls for seven more non-conference games before UMass Lowell launches its America East Conference existence March 15-16 with a three-game set against reigning league champion Binghamton University at LeLacheur Park.

America East already loves LeLacheur. Even before UMass Lowell officially exited the Northeast-10 Conference and Division 2, America East played its baseball tournament at LeLacheur last May and recently signed up for four more years of tournament play there.


UMass Lowell can only watch. The River Hawks during their NCAA reclassification period are not eligible for postseason play until 2018.

"Our carrot is to try to win the America East regular-season title," said Harring. "That's all we can do for the next four years. But we're going to do everything we can to do that."

But really, can they this year? Binghamton, essentially returning its entire lineup, and 2012 College World Series participant Stony Brook were designated co-favorites in the preseason coaches' poll. UMass Lowell was picked to finish last among the league's seven baseball schools.

Harring says 10 or 15 games from now he will have a better idea where his River Hawks stand in their new baseball world. He is confident in his team's fight. Baseball is one Division 1 sport UMass Lowell is immediately suited for tradition-wise. UMass Lowell over the years has had 18 players drafted by Major League Baseball, a number exceeded only by Maine (81) and Stony Brook (20) among current America East baseball schools, according to the Baseball-Reference.com draft database.

But there is the issue of pitching, the depth and breadth of which separates Division 1 from Division 2. Harring likens the challenge his able hitters will face to digging in against a Northeast-10 Conference staff ace every single game. In its Division 2 swan song last spring, UMass Lowell finished 30-19, but missed qualifying for the NE-10 playoffs.

"The competition is going to be better. There is no question about that," said junior center fielder Geoff DeGroot. "But we're confident. You have to be confident in this game."

DeGroot from Wesley Chapel, Fla., led UMass Lowell last spring with a .345 batting average and 25 stolen bases, and last summer played for the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League. He is D1 legit.

Among UMass Lowell's many returning players is also its second-leading hitter from last year, junior first baseman Jimmy Ricoy of Lowell, who batted .330 with a team-high 32 RBI.

"It seemed UMass Lowell had talked about going Division 1 since I was born," said Ricoy, the River Hawks' cleanup hitter, smiling. "I play with a bunch of D1 kids in the summer (with the Nashua Silver Knights). I'm going to be one of them now, I guess."

UMass Lowell will no longer be swinging the wooden bats of the NE-10. It is all metal, all the time (or at least until players head off to summer wooden-bat leagues). 

While in Division 2, Harring had less than one scholarship to divvy up. UMass Lowell baseball is up to four scholarships this year on its way to being funded to the NCAA baseball maximum of 11.7 scholarships in four years. The River Hawks' first "Division 1" recruiting class will arrive in the fall.

Still, there are newcomers expected to make an impact this season -- freshmen Tyler Noe from Lynnfield/St. John's Prep and Ian Strom from Hopedale, and junior shortstop Danny Mendick from Rochester, N.Y., a transfer from Monroe Community College.

Noe, an infielder coming off shoulder surgery, will start the season as the DH. "A tremendous hitter," said Harring.

Strom, a left-hander recovering from a recent knee injury, is expected to pitch this weekend and soon become the starting right fielder.

"They're definitely Division 1 players," said Ricoy. "All three of them (Noe, Strom and Mendick) can play."

Harring is confident also his top six or seven pitchers can hold up, especially senior right-handers Shane Beauchemin (9-0, 1.53 last season) and Garrett Cole (3-7, 4.13), whom the coach expects to have a bounce-back year.

But the margin for bad outings is small. The River Hawks' pitching is thinner than the competition.

"As the (Division 1) recruiting process goes along, we're really going to be bringing in arms," said Harring. "(In the meantime), if guys have wanted opportunities to pitch, they're certainly going to get them this year."

UMass Lowell went to the Division 2 World Series in 2001 and 2002 under Jim Stone and has been to four NCAA D2 Northeast Regionals during Harring's nine seasons. But here is UMass Lowell's challenging new America East world: Two years ago Stony Brook stunned LSU in a super regional to advance to the College World Series. Major League Baseball drafted seven players off that 2012 Stony Brook team, and America East overall had 12 players drafted that year.

Heading into this season, Hartford junior left-hander Sean Newcomb from Middleboro is a Baseball America preseason third-team All-America and ranked its No. 15 pro prospect among college juniors. Maine right-hander Tommy Lawrence, the unanimous 2013 Pitcher of the Year in the league, is also back. He went 11-3 with a 2.32 ERA last spring, then struck out 23 batters and walked just one in 28.1 inning last summer in the Cape Cod League.

"We will not be awed by anybody that we play," said Harring. "We will compete."

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