ORONO, Maine — Garet Beal grew up on Beals Island, where the basketball tradition is second only to its reputation as a hardworking fishing community of 500 people.
At Jonesport-Beals High School, the rugged 6-foot-5 swingman emerged as the most heralded player in school history.
In August, the three-time Bangor Daily News All-Maine choice began pursuing his basketball dream at the University of Maine, where he must prove himself all over again at the Division I level.
“I feel like I’ve always been doubted because of where I come from, but I’ve always considered myself to have a pretty good work ethic,” Beal said. “I’ve got a lot of drive, so if this is what I want to do, I’m going to do it.”
Attending UMaine meant leaving home, immersing himself in a more competitive basketball environment and dealing with an increased academic workload.
Beal has acquitted himself well as a first-year player for head coach Ted Woodward, whose Black Bears are off to a 2-10 start. Beal has played in nine games, all starts, averaging 7.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.0 steal in 24.3 minutes per contest.
“He has a good understanding of the game and comes every single day to work,” Woodward said. “Every day in practice he’s getting more confident, finding the things he can and can’t do.”
Beal missed UMaine’s two most recent games with a knee ailment, one that had sidelined him for a game earlier in the season.
He said the biggest difference has been the physical aspect of college basketball. At Class D Jonesport-Beals, he usually was the biggest and strongest player on the court.
At the Division I level, there are many taller, quicker and stronger players.
“In high school, you’re playing against 15- or 16-year-old kids. You’re playing against grown men now,” Beal said.
He is confident he is successfully adjusting to the rigors of college basketball, where he often is guarding an opponent who is two or three inches taller.
“He’s strong enough and versatile enough to be a mismatch for people to guard him, too,” Woodward said. “He’s a good passer, an able 3-point shooter and can take people off the dribble.”
UMaine practices also are longer and much more intense than in high school, but Beal welcomes the challenge.
“It’s such a high level of basketball and you have to bring it in every day,” he said.
One area of deficiency early in the season is Beal’s shooting percentage. He is shooting only 37 percent from the field, including 19 percent from 3-point distance.
“I think for the first couple games I shot real poor,” Beal said. “I think it was nerves. When I hit some shots and I got my confidence I said, ‘OK, I can do this.’”
Woodward expressed confidence that Beal has what it takes to become a well-rounded college player.
“He’s a guy that can increase his production as we move forward,” Woodward said. “He’s going to be a key guy to build around.”
Making the move to Orono was significant for Beal, who enjoys the close-knit nature of his hometown. UMaine is a whole new, and much larger, world.
“When I walked into my first class, there were like 350 people in it. I don’t think I’d ever seen 350 in one place, let alone one class,” Beal quipped.
He said keeping up with schoolwork also has been difficult at times.
“There’s plenty of distractions when you’re living in the dorms. You learn from it,” Beal said. “You have a lot of freedom, you just have to use your time wisely.”
Beal said there was a bit of homesickness initially, but his busy schedule of classes and basketball don’t afford him a lot of downtime anyway.
On those occasions when he wants to feel more at home, he can call on former Jonesport-Beals teammates Vinal Crowley and Nick Robinson, both of whom are living in Greater Bangor.
Crowley lives on Beal’s floor in Knox Hall, while Robinson attends Eastern Maine Community College and lives in Brewer.
“It’s been a hell of an adjustment for me having to leave home for my first year,” Beal said. “It’s nice to be able to catch up with them every little bit of free time I get.”
When the Black Bears are playing at home, Beal usually receives rousing cheers from family members and friends in the crowd.
Despite the challenges, Beal is enjoying his first year as a Division I student-athlete at UMaine. He has welcomed the opportunity to travel with the team and see Washington. D.C., along with playing top-level opponents such as Connecticut.
“We’ve been to some really cool places. It’s been a really good experience,” he said.
Beal’s approach moving forward is a simple one.
“Right now I just try to be one of the hardest working guys and one of the most coachable,” Beal said. “I’m a pretty good student of the game and I love to learn.”
UMaine returns to action at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in its America East Conference opener at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.