By Matt Williams
---- — Watching Brittany Russo play soccer at Danvers High, it was clear even to the untrained eye that the dynamic striker had what the scouts call “Division 1 speed.”
This fall, while helping usher in a new era of athletics at UMass-Lowell, she’ll get to show that off at the D1 level.
Russo graduated from Danvers in 2011 as the school’s all-time leader in goals (101) and points (139, though both records were broken by Corey Persson the following season) and took her considerable skill to Lowell, a Division 2 national contender in the highly regarded Northeast-10.
She was the NE-10 Rookie of the Year as a freshman and wound up losing all but eight games to a knee injury last year. In the winter, UMass Lowell announced a system-wide move to Division 1 and plans to join the America East conference to the delight of their fans and many current players.
“I chose Division 2 because I wanted to focus on school and still play at a high level. There were a few times when you wonder about playing D1, and to be able to play at that level at the school I love is really exciting,” Russo said.
Lowell opened training camp this week and plays its first Division 1 game at Marist on August 29. Just six of their 18 games are at home, but they’re looking forward to the chance to travel to venues like the University of Cincinnati.
“It’s a little different. We haven’t traveled much further than Vermont and New York and getting on a plane for a game will be different,” said Russo. “That’s one of the difference with Division 1, the time and preparation.”
Every school that makes the transition to D1 has a transition period in which they don’t qualify for the league and national tournaments. That, and just seeing some of their new rivals like Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine, for the first time will give the River Hawks plenty to play for.
“I think they usually have that because they figure in those few years stepping up, you’re not going to be good enough to make it,” said Russo. “It makes you want to prove it, show people that you do belong at this level.”
As a freshman two years ago, Russo scored 10 goals. That was the team lead and put her on a pace to equal the school record, which is 37 for a career. Last year, she was limited to one goal by the injury, a frustrating knee issue that she’s happy to say is behind her.
“It was hard for me to sit and watch because I’d never been hurt like that,” said Russo. “We never really found out exactly what happened, but after all the exercises and rehab I’ve been playing on it all summer with no relapses. I feel good, and I’m definitely excited to get playing again.”
For Russo, the transition to the college game came quickly because of her style of play. She has great speed to get in behind defenses, but that often masked her remarkable skill on the ball — something that came to the forefront at the collegiate level.
“College was really the style I’ve been playing my whole life and I think that helped me,” Russo said. “It was about possession and the passing game, it wasn’t a kick-and-run game, and that’s what I was used to.”
Lowell has 12 returning players and an influx of freshmen that will be looking to make that transition themselves. As they learn to play together, they’ll be looking forward to making an impact on their new level.
“I don’t think anything really changes. I just think we focus on playing the highest level we can as a team,” said Russo.