LOWELL — It wasn’t all that long ago, six years to be exact, that the fate of UMass Lowell’s hockey team hung in the balance and school trustees even talked about eliminating the sport.
A lot can happen in a short time. On Thursday, in a striking turnaround that mirrors the university’s rise to new prominence, the River Hawks play in the Frozen Four for the first time in school history, facing Yale University in the national semifinals.
The team’s breakthrough success has the campus brimming with excitement. Students have snatched up every last commemorative Frozen Four hat in the campus store. Alumni are hosting parties across the country, from San Francisco to Delray Beach, Fla. And the buses are rolling from Lowell to Pittsburgh filled with students who will be cheering on the team.
Those who aren’t making the trip will gather for a viewing party at the Tsongas Center, the squad’s home ice.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” said Corey Lanier, a junior from Dracut.
The team has drawn an average of more than 5,200 fans per game this season — 12th highest in the NCAA — and set a school record when more than 7,000 attended a January game against Northeastern University.
The River Hawks’ rise has been orchestrated by coach Norm Bazin, who was named the national Coach of the Year on Wednesday.
Dezanae Boston-Bernier, a sophomore, didn’t watch hockey growing up in Dorchester and arrived on campus with no interest in the team. “My friends kind of dragged me to the game,” she recalled. “I was yelling at the wrong time.”
But drawn by the game’s fast pace and the excitement around a winning team, Boston-Bernier quickly became a fan, and has savored the team’s dramatic run to the Frozen Four. The mood on campus after a win, she said, is electric.
“It’s contagious,” she said. “People are definitely hyped.”
UMass Lowell’s redemptive leap to the national stage epitomizes the university’s aspirations for a higher profile, a transformation that has seen enrollment rise by 40 percent — to 16,000 — since 2007, when Martin Meehan became chancellor of the school.
The university has undertaken a building boom, including an $80 million technology center and several more buildings on the way. The college has also ramped up fund-raising.
On the sports side, the university announced in February that its teams would make the leap to Division I as a member of the America East Conference, which includes the universities of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. (The hockey team will remain in the Hockey East Conference.)
“All of our peer institutions were already Division I,” Meehan said. “If we were going to enhance our reputation academically, we needed to make the move.”
Now, said Meehan: “The campus is on fire. I’ve never seen this kind of enthusiasm.”
On campus Wednesday, students said the hockey team’s success would only help the school transition from a commuter school to a sought-after destination, and has added to the sense of optimism at the college.
“It’s nice to see the school’s name out there,” said Dana Brandariz, a senior from Billerica.
Such fanfare would have seemed farfetched in 2007, when the program ran a steep deficit and the prospect of besting powerhouses like Boston College and Boston University seemed remote.
Meehan said he never doubted that the team could compete at a high level, but soon realized its arena badly needed an overhaul.
“From the time I got here, I rejected the notion that we couldn’t compete with BU or BC,” he said in an interview. “And it became clear to me if we wanted to have a first-rate hockey program, we needed to own our own building.”
In 2010, the university acquired the arena, named after the late former senator Paul Tsongas, for $1 from the city of Lowell. At the time, the facility was losing an estimated $1 million a year. After a host of improvements that included new luxury suites, a new sound system and scoreboard, and club seating, it is breaking even.
Like other colleges looking for broader name recognition, the university has sought to capitalize on the hockey team’s success, holding pregame receptions and other events around the games.
“It’s capturing a new group of alumni,” said Heather Makrez, UMass Lowell’s alumni relations director. “From an events standpoint, we’ve seen a lot of interest.”
At the campus bookstore, where a display of Frozen Four gear was front and center, business was brisk Wednesday morning.
“People are coming in constantly,” said senior Julie Chau, who works at the store.
Students were confident about the team’s chances, but said that just making it this far was a thrill.
For a school that rarely makes headlines, a nationally televised game on an ESPN network was a welcome turn in the spotlight.
Many were surprised to hear that university leaders had ever considered scrapping hockey. To them, and even longtime followers of the team, six years is ancient history.
“They’re not going to get rid of it now,” said junior Jeff Rauseo.