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UMaine Black Bears Poised To Make History In Playoff Quarterfinals

Courtesy Peter Buehner
via Bangor Daily News
Liam Dobson (left) of the University of Maine returns to the huddle during Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision second-round playoff game against Jacksonville State at Alfond Stadium in Orono.

The University of Maine football team is having a very good season. The Black Bears are in Utah, where they'll play Weber State in a quarterfinal playoff game tonight. Irwin Gratz sat down with Bangor Daily News reporter Larry Mahoney to talk about this Black Bear team and its successes.GRATZ: You know Larry was this squad expected to do this well?

MAHONEY: No. they were picked to finish eighth in the preseason poll by the Colonial [Athletic] Association coaches and media directors and there's never been high expectations for Maine. They've always been picked in the lower third of the conference. But that was motivation for this team - that fueled their desire to prove people wrong. And they went out and won the outright conference championship. It kind of falls back on their whole mentality up there because a lot of these players were overlooked in recruiting. So they come here with a chip on their shoulders - something to prove. They want to prove that, "Hey, you should've recruited us. We can play."  And that extra motivation is what enables them to be overachievers. So a lot of these players, Irwin, Maine was the only team that offered them a full scholarship.  So they came here with something to prove, they had the right environment to do so with limited distractions, great coaching staff. And here they are again three wins away from a national championship.

And this year began for this team with a tragedy - the death of freshman Darius Minor during a practice. What impact did that have on the squad?

MAHONEY: They dedicated this season to to Darius and his family. They took his number 39 jersey on their road trips and everything, and he was always in the back of their minds. It never happened in the 126-year history of this program to have somebody, a player, die on the practice field with their heart condition. And they took that very seriously and he served as extra motivation. Jeffrey DeVaughn, one of the co-captains apparently gave a stirring speech at the funeral. Because of the isolationism up here Irwin, this team is very closely bonded - as most Maine teams are - because there's not a lot of distractions up here. You're with each other almost 24/7, and of course when you are a Division 1 athlete your sport is 24/7. It's not like there is an offseason. There are off weeks but, you know, after your season you're in your weight training or you're working out to get ready for the next season. I talked to three alums for a story and one former football player referred to it as a lifelong fraternity.

Was there one particular game this season that signaled that this Maine team was going to make a mark? 

MAHONEY: We'd have to go with the first two - the first game was New Hampshire. Now New Hampshire had owed them. They hadn't beat New Hampshire, I believe, since 2011 - and their arch rival. New Hampshire came up here in 2013 in the second round of the playoffs and beat them 41 - 27, a devastating loss. So to come out and beat New Hampshire 35 - 7, to get that monkey off their back, was huge. And then to go to Western Kentucky playing a Football Bowl Subdivision team - so Maine went to Western Kentucky, promptly fell behind 21 - 0 in the first quarter and it would have been easy for them to just roll up the tent and absorb, you know, a lopsided loss. But they crawled their way back into the game and they won it. And I think those two games gave them further belief that they were special - this was a special group of players.

So the game at Weber State is a quarterfinal playoff game, right? This is as far as the University of Maine has gone. What are their chances against Weber State?

MAHONEY: Well it's going to be difficult. Weber State is 10 and 2.  One of their losses was to Utah, which is an FBS team and actually a very good FBS team that played for the Pac-12 Championship. Now, they're not going to wow you statistically but they're just very, very efficient. They're actually 19 and 3 at home over the last four seasons. They're a very good football team. It's going to be a real challenge. They'll very much be an underdog, but they've been an underdog since they first stepped on a football field.  And here they are again, three wins away from a championship and one win away from going further than any Maine team has gone since the inception of the program in 1892.