It is hard to convey the joy in the voices of University of Maine baseball players after they piled back into the Cyr motorcoach last Friday afternoon.
Fresh off winning the America East championship in Stony Brook, N.Y., they thumped rhythmically on the overhead compartments to accompany their jubilant chants.
It is a shame all UMaine fans couldn’t be present to experience those precious moments. The players had the satisfaction of realizing a dream they had worked toward — one of them for five years.
As the players celebrated their accomplishment, one couldn’t help but wonder how the news would affect the members of “Black Bear Nation.”
UMaine fans have, since the men’s hockey team’s appearance in the NCAA Frozen Four back in 2007, been yearning to have a Black Bear team back in the spotlight, on the national stage. That day has arrived.
Regardless of where UMaine fans fall in the spectrum, from the diehard optimists to the cynics, news of a conference championship likely evoked fist pumps, high-fives, verbal outbursts, smiles and maybe even a few disbelieving shakes of the head.
Coach Steve Trimper’s team has done what no other sports program at UMaine had achieved since 2005 — win a conference championship. In this day and age, during which UMaine teams have struggled in postseason play — when they have reached it — that’s no small feat.
UMaine also won the America East baseball championship in 2006, but the last by any other Black Bear program was the women’s basketball league crown won by coach Sharon Versyp’s team in 2005.
The men’s ice hockey, softball and men’s cross country teams were all conference champs in 2004. Football last shared a conference (Atlantic 10) title in 2002.
For those naysayers who have incessantly criticized what some perceive as a less than stellar lineup of America East baseball programs, save your breath.
It’s Division I baseball, every weekend. Conference play lasts seven weeks, 24 games. Then comes the four-team, double-elimination tournament.
This year’s Stony Brook team won 41 ballgames and earned considerable respect, including votes in the national polls, along the way. They went into the tournament, on their brand-new home field, as one of the hottest teams in the country.
The Seawolves, like the other AE contenders, had two pitchers who could beat any team on a given day. One will be drafted later this month.
UMaine beat them all. The Bears went 18-6 during the regular season, then hit the road one more time to defeat the other three tourney participants in succession, by a combined score of 22-5.
Accomplishments like this one are increasingly rare for UMaine sports teams. Black Bear fans are starved for a winner.
Trimper and the UMaine baseball team have, since Day 1, refused to allow recent history — one AE tourney berth in the previous three seasons — and an influx of freshman contributors to limit them.
From the outset, they have dared to imagine this team might have what it takes to win the America East title. Now, the Bears travel to the North Carolina Regional with a similar thought: That they can advance to a Super Regional.
UMaine’s quest begins Friday at 6 p.m. at Boshamer Stadium against the third-seeded Tar Heels.
These players and coaches have helped provide a pivotal boost of confidence and pride to the UMaine athletic program this spring. Don’t count out the Black Bears.