ORONO, Maine — There was a lot of hype in the two weeks preceding Saturday’s Maine-New Hampshire playoff game on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
The buildup was understandable, given the fact the Black Bears were enjoying one of their best seasons in years and would be playing the first home postseason game in program history.
New Hampshire spoiled the party, earning a 41-27 Football Championship Subdivision over UMaine.
But it is a day Black Bear players will never forget.
“I don’t even know how cold it is out, but it’s pretty cold out,” said UMaine senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski. “To have that kind of support, to have that energy — students, parents, alumni, whoever you want to say was there today — they showed up.”
UMaine reported the attendance as 7,992. The throng included nearly 2,400 members of the student body.
Wasilewski and his fellow fifth-year seniors have played in front of more than their share of marginal crowds in recent years. Saturday’s turnout helped validate their efforts.
“That was the loudest we can ever remember here,” he continued. “To look back, I think, as a senior — and I think I speak for all the seniors when I say — to remember that as our last game at home with that kind of crowd, that kind of atmosphere, is something to really cherish.”
The word respect is bandied about often whenever UMaine and UNH clash on the football field.
It starts with the head coaches: the Black Bears’ Jack Cosgrove and Sean McDonnell of the Wildcats.
However, there was perhaps no better demonstration of class and respect than during UMaine’s attempted onside kick with 20 seconds left to play in the game.
New Hampshire’s Justin Mello fielded the kick and appeared to have a big open lane to the end zone. Instead, he pulled up and went down to one knee.
“He made that decision,” McDonnell explained. “The kid who did it: Smart kid. Class kid. I haven’t talked to him about it, but I’m really proud of him for doing it. No need to score there.”
UMaine and UNH share a geographic isolation in the northeast and compete for some of the same recruits.
“There’s a ton of respect,” said Cosgrove, UMaine’s 21st-year coach. “That’s probably a lot more coming from our end based on how they’ve handled us over the last 12 years [UNH is 11-1].”
McDonnell was complimentary in victory, his team’s second of the year over the Bears.
“You take a step back, and they had an unbelievable year up here,” he said. “Cozzy’s done it for a long time with a great bunch of kids and hardworking people.”
Both programs were proud to represent the Colonial Athletic Association in the playoff field, but Cosgrove was quick to point out that UNH has a proven track record of excellence to which UMaine continues to aspire.
“We need to establish a consistency in winning,” he said.
“This [UNH] program, we really have to say sets the CAA standard for being 10 straight years in the playoffs, they happen to be our rival, three hours away,” he added.
UMaine’s success in 2013 is a tribute in great part to the efforts of its 18 seniors.
That group includes Wasilewski, tight end Justin Perillo, running back Rickey Stevens, receiver Derrick Johnson and linemen Joe Hook, Jeff Gakos and Tyler Patterson on offense. Ends Mike Cole and Erwin Roach, cornerback Kendall James, linebacker Troy Eastman and safeties Jamal Clay and Lamar Fitzgerald were key seniors on defense.
“They set a standard of excellence,” Cosgrove said.
“You can talk about coaches as much as you want, but the best modeling, the best learning, takes place when you’ve got guys in the locker room who embrace the values you preach as a coach, model them on the practice field, on Saturday nights,” he added.
The hope for the Black Bears is that mentality and work ethic will carry over to the returning players, next year’s seniors in particular.
In the meantime, UMaine players will take time to reflect on their successful 2013 season.
“I was definitely blessed to have the opportunity to play with these guys,” Stevens said. “The brotherhood and the friendships that I’ve created over these years is something that won’t go away and will last forever.
“Just to have this opportunity to play this playoff game and do things that this program has never done, it’s definitely something that I’m thankful for,” he said.