Life on the road is a perennial reality for rural small-college basketball teams like the University of Maine at Fort Kent Bengals.
Few opponents want to make the long trip to northernmost Maine when the weather potentially is at its worst, particularly when the host is thriving — Tom Bird’s UMFK squad went 23-9 and reached the semifinals of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association national tournament last winter.
Such success leaves this year’s team with just six home contests within a 32-game schedule that begins this Saturday and Sunday at a preseason tournament hosted by the University of Prince Edward Island.
By the time the Bengals complete that slate with an eye toward qualifying for either USCAA or NAIA Division II postseason play — UMFK has rejoined the NAIA ranks this year for the first time since 2010 — the team will have played in nine different states as well as this weekend’s two-game sojourn to Atlantic Canada.
Perhaps the most noteworthy game of that basketball odyssey will come Nov. 22 when the Bengals play a regular-season contest at the University of Vermont, which not only is an NCAA Division I program but is coming off a 29-6 season that included an undefeated run to the America East championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament, where the Catamounts fell to Purdue 80-70 in Round of 64 play.
The UMFK-Vermont game will come just 10 days after the Catamounts play Kentucky at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky, followed by a tournament in the Bahamas on Nov. 17-19.
“I send out hundreds of emails every year to DI teams trying to get them to play us,” said Bird, whose team defeated another America East program, the University of Maine, in a preseason matchup last season. “It’s a great recruiting tool. It allows us to go play in front of great crowds and allows our guys and team to see just where we match up against the best.”
Many Division I teams like Vermont and UMaine — which played a regular-season game against UMaine-Presque Isle last year and will play the Owls again on Dec. 5 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor as well as host UMaine-Machias on Dec. 10 — schedule small-college opponents in part to add home games to their nonconference schedules that enable players to spend more time on campus and reduce the stress on travel budgets.
All nine America East schools are set to play at least one home game this winter against a non-Division I opponent.
Vermont hosted Division III Lyndon State College of Lyndonville, Vermont, last Nov. 19 and scored a 79-20 victory. It was one of just six home games among the Catamounts’ 15 nonconference contests during the 2016-17 season while UMaine’s 96-45 win over UMPI last Nov. 26 was one of just five home contests in its 15-game nonconference slate.
“Vermont reached back with this date,” said Bird of UMFK’s pending game against the Catamounts, “and it worked out perfectly because we were playing in New York the night before and would have headed home, but now we will stop for one night in Burlington and play at Vermont.”
Bird said UMFK will receive a $3,000 guarantee from Vermont for playing the Catamounts, money the program uses to help fund other road trips on its schedule, which this year also includes a 10-day trip to Washington, Oregon and Idaho beginning Oct. 26 as well as the four-games in five days the Bengals will play in upstate New York immediately before visiting Vermont and a January trip to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Vermont that will include five games in six days.
“We will play six games out West, all guarantee games from top-25 NAIA teams,” Bird said. “The flights are paid for by guarantees earned last season and now the ones we get from this trip will roll over to next year so we can hope to take a trip like this each year from now on.”
UMFK returns just three players from last year’s squad in 6-foot-7 senior forward Travis Harlin Jr., 6-foot-4 senior forward Benson Arogbo and 6-foot senior guard Bobby Syvanthong.
But the newcomers include 6-foot-3 senior guard Anthony Knight, a transfer from NCAA Division II University of Texas-Permian Basin, and junior college transfer Troy Williams, a 6-foot point guard.
The Bengals also have added 6-foot-9 sophomore center Thomas Enerva, a 2012 graduate of Fort Kent Community High School who is returning to the UMFK roster after several years away from the sport. Other Mainers on the roster are 6-foot-3 senior guard Abdi Hussein of Lewiston and two freshmen, 6-foot-4 forward James Mersereau of reigning Class D state champion Machias and Andre Rossignol, a 6-foot guard from Van Buren.
“We should be able to go 10 deep in most games,” Bird said. “On paper it’s the most talent I’ve ever had here.”
Whether that talent’s enough to compete with the likes of the University of Vermont remains to be seen, as the Catamounts’ returning players include reigning America East player of the year Trae Bell-Haynes and rookie of the year Anthony Lamb.
“We will take the same mind set in as when we played Maine, that we are going to try and stun them on their home court,” said Bird. “Whether that happens, I have no idea this early but we aren’t going down just to collect our check. Our guys and myself included are too competitive for that.”