Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Six seniors on the University of Maine’s field hockey team have helped elevate the program to national prominence, although the Black Bears are still seeking that elusive first NCAA Tournament berth.

And the Black Bears are expected to be in contention to attain that goal this season after being picked a narrow second to perennial power Albany in the annual America East coaches poll.

In the final year of the league’s East-West Division setup, the Black Bears received 14 points and two first-place votes in the East Division, one point and one first-place vote behind Albany.

New Hampshire was third with 10 points followed by UMass Lowell (6) and Vermont (5).

Stanford was the pick to win the West Division followed by Pacific, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California Davis.

Beginning in the 2019 season, Monmouth University (New Jersey) will join America East giving the conference a sixth team which is necessary for a conference tournament champion to earn an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

So there won’t be a West Division.

Again this season, the top four teams in each division will qualify for the tournament which will be held at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The first round will consist of crossover games with the top seed in the East meeting the No. 4 seed in the west and so on.

The Black Bears have gone 44-17 the past three seasons including a 19-5 record in America East regular season play.

However, the Black Bears have lost in the first round of the America East playoffs the last two years, 3-2 to Pacific last year and 3-2 to California-Berkeley two years ago. In 2015, UMaine beat California and Stanford to reach the final where it lost to Albany 2-0.

UMaine went 12-6 a year ago and shared the conference regular season title with Albany by going 6-2 in the conference including a split with the Great Danes. Albany was seeded first due to a tiebreaker. Maine was ranked 25th in the nation in the last poll, and it was the fourth time in seven years the Black Bears completed a season nationally ranked.

The Black Bears will return five of their top six scorers off a team that finished 14th in the country in goals per game (2.89).

America East East Division all-stars Libby Riedl, who led the team with nine goals and 10 assists, Samantha Wagg (8 & 7) and Casey Crowley (3 & 7) will headline the list of returnees along with junior Brianna Ricker (10 & 4) and All-Rookie team selection Cassandra Mascarenhas.

Longtime goalkeepers Emma Cochran and Emily Corbett have departed, so English freshman Mia Borley will inherit the job. Borley has represented England and Wales at the international level. Borley is the only goalkeeper on the roster.

She is one of six incoming freshmen along with Portland’s Hannah Abbott, Boothbay Harbor’s Sydney Meader, Searsmont’s Kelsey Mehuren, Hampden’s Claire Scobie and Nina Keur from The Netherlands.

“We have a lot of experience,” said 12th year head coach Josette Babineau, who will be joined by second-year associate head coach Michelle Simpson. “We obviously want to win our side of the conference to get in the best playoff position possible.”

UMaine will host Boston University in an exhibition game Monday at 11 a.m. and will play its first regular season game against visiting Holy Cross Aug. 24 at 1 p.m.

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