ORONO, Maine — Cindy Blodgett. Billy Swift. Eric Weinrich. Bob Warner. John Huard. Heather Hathorn. Jesse Labreck.
They are among the most celebrated athletes ever to play at the University of Maine. All were products of Maine high schools.
Best known for its men’s ice hockey, baseball, football and women’s basketball teams, UMaine is the state’s only Division I program. It provides students with the chance to compete at some of the highest levels of college sports.
During 2013-2014, there are 414 student-athletes on UMaine rosters. Among them are 142 who graduated from Maine high schools — slightly more than one-third (34 percent).
“We try and go after the best kids in Maine,” said UMaine track and field/cross country head coach Mark Lech. “I always feel like I owe the kids in Maine something; their parents pay taxes in the state.”
Increasingly, only a small number are able to make a significant impact.
In higher-profile sports such as football, men’s ice hockey, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball, there are a total of only 26 Maine students on teams with a combined with 118.7 scholarship equivalencies.
On the other 12 rosters, there are 116 instate student-athletes and 77 scholarships available.
Football coach Jack Cosgrove and other UMaine coaches say it is a matter of simple math.
“The volume of players in the state of Maine is simply far less than what it is in other states,” Cosgrove said.
Higher population density in Boston, New York and beyond means more prospects who are competing for scholarships and a Division I experience.
“You see greater levels of size, speed and those things that come as a result of the volume [of athletes competing there],” Cosgrove added.
Among sports offered by UMaine, NCAA scholarship maximums range from 63 for football (UMaine has 61), down to 9.9 for men’s swimming, although UMaine’s program does not offer any.
Track and field and cross country rely heavily on instate athletes, who account for 78 percent of the men’s rosters and 53 percent of the women’s athletes.
“On the guys’ side, we’ll get the kids that are the ‘diamonds in the rough’ and may not have gotten offers from someplace else,” said Lech, who has only two equivalencies for the men.
He said there is more potential to recruit instate female athletes because he has 11 scholarships to divide among them.
The men’s swim team includes 15 Mainers among 24 competitors and coach Susan Lizzotte’s women have eight scholarships, with 15 Mainers on the 33-member team.
There are 92 student-athletes rostered for football, but only 11 (12 percent) are from Maine. Cosgrove said instate players must have key intangibles, in addition to talent, to earn a spot in the regular rotation.
“Their passion, their love of the game, I think that’s what has separated all of the successful Maine players that we’ve had here,” he explained.
UMaine’s ice hockey teams have the fewest Maine players.
The women have only two Mainers on their 26-player roster (8 percent). Co-coach Richard Reichenbach said girls hockey in the state is still in its developmental stages, which limited the number of players competing in the high school ranks.
“No matter where you are [in the U.S.], it’s really tough to play high school hockey and make the jump to Division I women’s ice hockey,” he said.
Men’s hockey historically has had only a few instate players at a time. There were three this season, 11 percent of the 28-man squad.
With only 42 high school teams and limited Junior programs in the state, UMaine recruits players from fertile hockey areas such as Canada and New York.
The Maine presence on Black Bear basketball teams has fluctuated over the years. This season, there are two instate players on the women’s team, the same number as five years ago but three fewer than during 2003-2004.
Third-year head coach Richard Barron said there is no way to predict how instate players might fit into the program at a given time.
“Our No. 1 priority is to try to field the best team that we can,” he said. “If we can do that with kids from Maine, that’s exactly what we want. Where they’re from is secondary to how well they can help us win games.”
The men’s team has three Maine student-athletes, but only Garet Beal of Beals Island is on scholarship. During 2008-2009, there were seven Mainers on the roster.
“It varies by year and the number of Division I players available,” coach Ted Woodward said of Mainers’ ability to made the grade.
Women’s soccer coach Scott Atherley said while it is his hope to “‘build a fence around the state’” to draw the best Maine players to UMaine, recruits aren’t judged on talent alone.
“We want to attract those student-athletes that have the greatest impact on the field, provided that they meet the academic and personal profile that we’re looking for,” he said.
Former star Heather Hathorn of Scarborough is the Black Bears’ career leader in goals and points.
“We rely on players from Maine and I think the evidence suggests that we do due diligence with our recruiting in the state,” Atherley said.
Not all the best instate athletes attend UMaine. The basketball, men’s hockey and baseball teams are among those that occasionally have watched prospects pursue opportunities elsewhere, often at higher-level programs.
Recent examples include basketball players Tom Knight (Notre Dame) and Ashley Cimino (Stanford), baseball standout Ryan Flaherty (Vanderbilt) and hockey defenseman Brian Dumoulin (Boston College).
“We definitely try to get the best Maine kids we can,” said baseball coach Steve Trimper. “That’s a huge thing for us.”
Trimper, who has seven Mainers on his ballclub this season, pointed out, “It has to be the right fit. It’s a two-way street.”
The UMaine field hockey team, coached by Josette Babineau, has consistently incorporated Maine players. There are eight on the 2013-2014 squad, 40 percent of the roster.
“We’ve been lucky to have quite a few players graduate every year in Maine who are of the Division I caliber and are looking to continue their playing experience and stay close to home,” said Babineau.
She explained that the high level of high school field hockey in Maine and the growth of club teams has enabled numerous players to develop Division I skills.
Recruiting also comes down to the timing of the players’ graduation in relation to available roster spots, the program’s needs at a particular position and the availability of scholarship dollars.
Almost all UMaine coaches take advantage of nonscholarship players. That enables athletes to practice and play with the team and prove whether they are deserving of scholarship money.
Such an arrangement, which can be more attractive to Maine students because of instate tuition rates, can serve as an incentive for athletes.
“We will certainly look for avenues to help them financially once they’re here if they’ve proven to be quality student-athletes,” Atherley said.
The bottom line is, UMaine coaches recognize the value of instate athletes and will continue to recruit those who have what it takes to compete at the Division I level.
“It’s very important to provide the opportunity to the state’s young men and women to play here,” Cosgrove said.