Winning takes talent, but sometimes intangibles such as leadership, commitment, motivation and resilience can help a team maximize its potential.
The University of Maine football team combined those qualities while putting together an 8-5 season that ended with Saturday’s 40-15 loss to Northern Iowa in the NCAA playoffs.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears, ranked 20th in The Sports Network’s final regular-season poll, shrugged off injuries to several key players and received outstanding play from previously unproven athletes while posting their best record since the 2002 team went 11-3.
UMaine, which was picked to finish fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association North Division, overachieved.
The injury woes began early as starting defensive back Dom Cusano and backups Trevor Coston and Levi Ervin of Lisbon Falls suffered knee injuries in the first three games.
On offense, starting tailback Jhamal Fluellen was hurt in week four and missed three games, while starting quarterback Adam Farkes was lost for the season Week 6 at Delaware.
The Bears started 2-3, but persevered and knocked off two nationally-ranked opponents while earning six straight wins. The key was the shining example set by the team’s 14 seniors.
“We had a special group of seniors that really did [make a total commitment],” Cosgrove said. “[They were] great leaders, very disciplined, made a lot of sacrifices.”
Their presence was felt more on defense, where six seniors started and another played regularly. The group was spearheaded by end Jovan Belcher, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year and a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award.
He made a team-best 98 tackles with 7½ quarterback sacks.
Tackle Jon Pirruccello of Turner bolstered the front four, while linebackers Andrew Downey (96 tackles) and Sean Wasson (93) were mashers in the middle. Cornerback Lionel Nixon Jr. (two interceptions) and free safeties Lamir Whetstone (five INTs) and Jonathan Calderon gave UMaine a wealth of senior experience.
The Bears ranked third in CAA pass efficiency defense, fourth in total defense (323.6 yards per game), fifth in rushing defense (137.5 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (22.8 ppg).
Three juniors, linebacker Mark Masterson, end Jordan Stevens of Temple and safety Brandon McLaughlin, along with two redshirt freshmen, tackle Raibonne Charles of Windham and cornerback Norman Smith also were solid.
Redshirt freshmen Jerron McMillian (safety) and Kevin Phanor (tackle) and junior Eric Lee (tackle) also contributed.
UMaine has some young, talented players waiting to step up. Along with the return of the injured players, veterans Derrick Harris and Troy Harris, linebackers Donte Dennis and Vinson Givans, safety Mike Kuhn and linebackers Ryan McCrossan and Conor Keating have tremendous potential.
UMaine’s offense went through a major transition after the injuries to Fluellen and Farkes. The result was a more effective, run-oriented squad that produced budding stars.
With Farkes’ strong arm eliminated from the mix, junior Mike Brusko took over and spearheaded the ground game while providing poise and leadership. UMaine finally put the ball in the hands of Lewiston’s Jared Turcotte and the redshirt freshman responded with a team-leading 625 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
The fullback also paced the receiving corps with 25 catches for 285 yards and a TD and was a punishing blocker.
The Bears also integrated tailback Derek Session, another redshirt freshman, along with rookie tailback Pushaun Brown. Fluellen bounced back to gain 565 rushing yards.
UMaine wound up third in CAA rushing (187.5 ypg) but was only seventh in scoring offense (24.5 ppg), ninth in total offense (326.4 ypg) and 11th in passing offense (138.9 ypg).
The Bears’ inability to throw effectively was revealed in their last two games, when New Hampshire and UNI slowed the ground game. The return of Brusko, a healthy Farkes and the backs, bodes well for 2009.
Kenny Fersner was the only senior among the wideouts, who were paced by sophomore Tyrell Jones (23 receptions, 356 yds., 4 TDs) and junior Landis Williams (22-308-5).
The guidance of senior center and senior tackle Chris Arnao was critical to the development of the line, which had three new full-time starters in tackle Tyler Eastman of Old Town and guards Steve Shea of Corinna and Matt Barber.
That unit played cohesively all season and stayed healthy.
“I hope they understand what’s possible, coming from Orono, Maine, to [make the playoffs],” Canary said. “Hopefully, they can take it a step further and win a CAA championship and advance fairly far in the NCAA championship.”
Place-kickers Jordan Waxman and Brian Harvey should be improved, while UMaine must replace punter Kash Kiefer in its quest to improve.
“The leadership that the seniors brought to the table, the enthusiasm and the respect for the game and the love for their teammates and [putting] the team before yourself, is what made this team so successful this year,” Turcotte said.