Thanksgiving is a time of reflection for many Americans who, even in these difficult economic times, are glad to live here in the United States.
For most, the holiday is a chance for families to spend the day together and share a dinner table jammed with turkey and all the fixings.
The members of the University of Maine football team won’t have that opportunity today, at least not in the traditional sense.
Coach Jack Cosgrove and the 54 members of the Black Bears’ travel squad are spending the holiday in Orono, where they have been preparing for Saturday’s NCAA Football Championship Subdivision first-round playoff game at Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
The players and coaches will gather as a football family for a 3 p.m. Thanksgiving dinner at the Black Bear Inn and Conference Center in Orono.
The family dynamic is a critical element of the UMaine program and that special bond the players develop within the team structure is part of the reason it has been so successful this season.
Most of the student-athletes left their homes, their families and their lives far behind when they arrived in Orono for what is usually a four- or five-year stay. And because the players spend so much time together, and commit so much effort to a common cause, they build relationships that are lasting.
“Most of these guys that are seniors are guys I came in with,” said junior quarterback Mike Brusko, who redshirted during his first season in 2005. “I’m still not ready for it to be our last game.”
The family dynamic at UMaine is a key reason why the Bears are so pleased to have been selected for the NCAA tournament on the heels of Saturday’s devastating loss to archrival New Hampshire at Alfond Stadium in Orono.
Sunday night’s announcement that there would be more football insured the team would share another game, and a rare Thanksgiving, together.
“The family relationship that we build, that says it all,” said senior defensive end and co-captain Jovan Belcher.
In the initial wake of Saturday’s loss, there was a feeling of deprivation, especially among UMaine’s seniors. They believed they likely had played together for the last time.
“That’s all we wanted, just to be able to play again together, this team,” Brusko said. “It’s a special situation and it’s a special group of guys and I’m just thankful that we get to do it maybe a couple more times.”
Few people are more thankful today than Cosgrove, who is taking his third team in eight seasons to the postseason.
“We feel so privileged and honored to be in the playoffs and we’re excited by that,” Cosgrove said. “We’re just excited to get some practice in and go play a football game.”
Cosgrove develops a special attachment and affection for his players, in particular the seniors on the team. This season, the senior class has had a tremendous impact, on the field and off, in helping the Black Bears post an 8-4 record.
He won’t soon forget seeing the reaction of his players, especially the seniors, when UMaine was listed on the TV screen as part of the 16-team playoff bracket.
“The call [Sunday] night was just what the doctor would order for a bunch of young men who had kind of thought or felt something they had worked so hard for had been taken away,” Cosgrove said. “That was exhilarating for me to see. It’s what makes coaching special.”
Youth serves UMaine women
The UMaine women’s basketball team continues to receive solid contributions from its freshman class early in the season.
Samantha Baranowski, a 6-foot-3 center, is leading coach Cindy Blodgett’s Bears in scoring (11.0 points per game) and is fourth in rebounding (3.3 rpg).
“It’s really going to be fun to watch her over the course of the next four years because Sam is very good right now, but her room for growth is really impressive when we watch her in practice every day,” said Blodgett, whose team is gearing up for Friday’s 6 p.m. game against Brown in the first round of the Dead River Co. Classic at Alfond Arena.
Freshman guard Jasmine Rush also has chipped in with 4.7 points and 2.0 assists in 20 minutes per contest for 1-2 UMaine.
The most recent freshman to join the mix is Samantha Wheeler. The 6-foot guard/forward played her first game Sunday in the win over Massachusetts at Augusta and immediately demonstrated her skills.
Wheeler, who had been sidelined by a couple of injuries, was a noticeable presence at the top of UMaine’s 1-2-2 matchup zone.
“With that height, a 6-foot guard, and her arm span, it’s great having her up there,” said UMaine junior Kristin Baker of Bingham. “She’s quick and she can move real well.”
Wheeler, the granddaughter of former UMaine quarterback Manch Wheeler, scored two points and grabbed five rebounds in her 24-minute debut.
“She’s battled through injuries,” Blodgett said. “Every day I go into practice, hoping she’s going to be there because she’s a hard worker.”
The missing piece of the puzzle is freshman point guard Brittany Williams, who has been limited to one, seven-minute stint at Duke because of a nagging hamstring injury.