ORONO, Maine — On Sept. 27, after a disappointing home loss to James Madison, the University of Maine football team was 2-3.
The Black Bears had lost two in a row and seemed to be at a crossroads.
Yet among the players, there was an unmistakable sense of progress and optimism about the future of the team. Now, eight weeks later, coach Jack Cosgrove’s team is one win away from the playoffs.
One of the key factors in UMaine’s resilience and success during a six-game winning streak has been the commitment and consistency of the Bears’ senior class.
“I’ve learned this from them: If you have strong leadership on your team, you have a chance to be more powerful as a team than what you anticipated,” Cosgrove said. “This is something that we’ve seen happen this year.”
Today, a group of 14 seniors play what is likely to be their last home game with a chance to compete in the NCAA playoffs riding on the outcome. Among the seniors are 10 starters, including six on the defensive side of the ball.
The senior class includes the co-captains, defensive end Jovan Belcher, the Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year, and tailback/receiver Jhamal Fluellen.
“Jovan is not piling up the statistics that you might get or hope for, but he’s doing some things that allow our defensive team to be successful,” Cosgrove offered. “Jhamal was our feature back, got hurt, came back in a reduced role and said he’d do whatever it takes to win. It’s about the team [with this group].”
The seniors on defense also include tackle Jon Pirruccello of Turner, linebackers Andrew Downey and Sean Wasson, cornerback Lionel Nixon Jr. and safeties Lamir Whetstone and Jonathan Calderon.
The offensive unit includes center Ryan Canary, tackle Chris Arnao, wide receivers Kenny Fersner and Jerron Pearson and H-back Wellington Talkpa. Punter Kash Kiefer also is a senior.
Cosgrove said this senior class has been willing to commit itself to practicing hard every day, follow offseason workout schedules and remain focused on achieving team goals rather than personal accomplishments.
“This is a group of guys willing to do all the things necessary to win and then when they got the taste of winning, they became an even more powerful entity,” Cosgrove said.
Pirruccello said the seniors have developed into a close-knit group that has learned to work toward common goals despite whatever differences they may have encountered in their backgrounds.
“We’ve developed good relationships on and off the field,” Pirruccello said. “That carries over when you’re in the weight room, you know how to push each other. I think we’ve communicated very well over the last four years and so far it has paid off this season.”
Even as the seniors have excelled, whether on the field, in the classroom or in the community, their passion for the game and for playing together has rubbed off on their younger, less experienced teammates.
Ultimately, this UMaine team will go as far as its senior leaders are able to take it.
“Sometimes, you hope the group personality is strong enough that it impacts the rest of the team and this is one of those groups that has done that,” Cosgrove said. “Their discipline level, their commitment, their willingness to make sacrifices on behalf of the program, have been special and something you can see and feel.”