For the first time in school history, both varsity basketball programs at the University of Maine-Fort Kent are participating in the NAIA Division II National Championship tournament.
And at Maine’s northernmost state university, where travel is a necessary (and expensive) evil, the historical significance isn’t the only bonus.
“Yeah, it’s nice that they both cooperated so well and got into the tournament. It’s a lot more cost-effective for us,” joked UMFK athletic director Bill Ashby. “Both teams are flying out from Boston Monday morning and they’re both coming back within 2½ hours of each other.”
“I don’t know if we can all fit on one bus, but I guess we’ll find out,” said UMFK women’s head coach Lucas Levesque.
The UMFK men and women are headed to different locations with the men going to Point Lookout, Mo., and the women going to Sioux City, Iowa, for their respective 32-team tourneys, which both start March 10.
This is becoming an almost annual event for the UMFK women, who are making their third straight trip and fifth in the last seven years. The men are making their first-ever NAIA tourney appearance.
While the teams differ in their tourney experience level, they both share the considerable challenge of drawing the No. 1 overall tournament seed in their opening round games.
Coach Eric Werntgen’s men are 21-8 and will take on No. 1 Walsh University of Canton, Ohio, at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, March 10. The Cavaliers are 28-2 and carry a nine-game win streak into the tourney.
“Our draw’s obviously a tough one, but I think we match up talent-wise,” said Werntgen. “The biggest thing is confidence. We have kids from competitive backgrounds, so I don’t think we’ll be intimidated.”
One thing the Bengals won’t be is totally unfamiliar with is their favored opponent.
“Ironically, we had Walsh up here in our tipoff tourney last year,” Werntgen explained. “We couldn’t get them back on the schedule this year and said, ‘Well, hopefully we’ll see you in Branson.’”
The Bengals are led by sophomore power forward Brandon Fox, who is averaging 15.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Senior guard Jimmy Lopez leads UMFK with 15.8 points per game and is averaging 1.9 assists.
Junior forward Othniel Hyliger is averaging 11.1 points and 8.9 rebounds. Manny Odugbela (13.6 ppg, 2.5 apg, 1.6 spg) and fellow sophomore guard Jeremy Thomas (11.2 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.4 spg) also pace the Bengals.
Werntgen is the only member of the Bengals with previous NAIA tourney experience as he participated as a player in 1995 and 1996.
“I went as a to Boise, Idaho. When I’d last played, we’d been there the previous year so it wasn’t so awe-inspiring,” he said. “I think it definitely helps having gone as a player, but I’m not going to lie, I’ll be a little star struck as well, as a coach.”
Meanwhile, coach Lucas Levesque’s 19-8 UMFK women will try and upset No. 1 Hastings (Neb.) College at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 10. The Broncos are 30-3 overall.
“Hastings scores around the high 70s every game and plays good defense,” Levesque said. “I think they’re returning just about everyone after getting to the finals last year.”
Sounds like yet another formidable matchup for the Bengals.
“We’ve come to expect it,” Levesque said. “We’ve had lopsided losses every year we’ve been there and that’s what usually happens when No. 1 plays No. 32. The biggest thing is our mindset where we’re not going to go in scared and nervous.”
The UMFK women are led by senior guard Talisha Herring, a transfer from UM-Machias averaging 12.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.6 assists per game.
Other key Bengals players are senior forward Kristen Violette (17.0 ppg, 6.8 rgp, 2.6 apg), freshman guard Morgan Chasse (9.8 ppg, 2.6 apg, 2.1 spg) out of John Bapst High School, and sophomore forward Maliesha Caesar (8.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.7 apg).
The University of Maine-Farmington men will take on host school Bridgewater State College in an NCAA Division III Tournament first round game today at 7 p.m. in Bridgewater, Mass.
The 14-11 Beavers earned an automatic tourney invitation — their first-ever NCAA appearance — after winning the North Atlantic Conference title — also a first and the program’s first-ever postseason title. The 19-7 BSC Bears are making their second straight NCAA tourney appearance and fifth overall.
The winner of tonight’s game will take on 26-1 Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., on Saturday.
Junior forward Eric Taylor of Oakland leads the team with 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a game. Senior guard Eric Lelansky (13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.9 apg), senior center Josh Tanguay (12.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), junior guard Andrew Dean (8.0 ppg), and sophomore guard D.J. Gerrish (4.4 ppg, 2.2 apg) are other key players.