For only the second time in school history, the University of Maine will host a playoff football game this Saturday at Alfond Stadium in Orono.
The noontime kickoff against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks is the next stage in an already remarkable season for the Black Bears, who have weathered tragedy, injuries and a low preseason ranking on their way to a 8-3 record, Colonial Athletic Conference title and several individual awards.
Even before the season began, the team faced adversity when freshman defensive back Darius Minor collapsed and died of a heart condition during a July workout. The Black Bears took Minor’s number 39 jersey with them to road games, wore his initials and number on their helmets, and dedicated the season to him.
Their inspired and exciting efforts this season — made despite key injuries and not without some undisciplined play — earned them a first-round bye in the Football Champion Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, and should make the entire state proud regardless of what happens on Morse Field this weekend.
The early forecast for Saturday predicts partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the 20s or low 30s — a less-than-warm welcome for the visiting team from Alabama that hopefully won’t discourage more acclimated Maine fans from showing up and supporting their deserving team that has often played the role of underdog this year.
“Everybody here has a chip on their shoulders. Everyone was underrecruited. We all got overlooked. We were told we weren’t fast enough or strong enough or smart enough or we didn’t get good enough grades,” senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield told the BDN in November.
Sheffield won All-New England team honors from the New England Football Writers’ University Division along with junior cornerback Manny Patterson and junior kick returner Earnest Edwards.
The New England Football Writers named UMaine head coach Joe Harasymiak the University Division Coach of the Year. Harasymiak is also a finalist for the FCS’ national coach of the year award, and Sheffield is in the running for top FCS defensive player honors.
Harasymiak and his players have continually outpaced expectations and proven people wrong this year. At the beginning of the season, Maine was predicted to finish eighth in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association. Not only did they go on to win the conference, they secured the 7th overall seed in the FCS playoffs.
“To do the things we did this season, the moments we had throughout the season … to get the seventh seed finally shows that our hard work is paying off,” senior co-captain Jeffrey DeVaughn told the BDN after the playoff seedings were announced. “But we’re still not done yet.”
No matter what happens Saturday, the Black Bears have displayed an impressive amount of grit and determination on the difficult road to a conference championship. Maine fans have plenty of reasons to pack Alfond Stadium and reward the team for its hard work.