ORONO — Justin Mello had the football and an open field in front of him. The end zone and another New Hampshire touchdown beckoned. No player in a Maine uniform was within 10 yards of him.
Mello took a step, stopped and dropped to one knee to kill the play. With 18 seconds left, one more touchdown would salt an open wound. Here was a bit of compassion, even between rivals.
This NCAA playoff game, the first ever at Maine, was over. New Hampshire walked onto Maine’s big stage in front of Maine’s big crowd and snatched Maine’s big moment away. The final score was 41-27. Most of the wind-whipped fans in the announced crowd of 7,992 went searching for warmth about 10 minutes earlier when New Hampshire surged ahead by three touchdowns.
Loud cheers and applause had greeted Maine went it first ran onto the field under a blue sky. It’s been decades since that noise was heard, welcoming a Black Bears football team. Hours later the applause from the remaining thousand or so fans was a sad salute to a wonder-filled season and its crash ending.
“From five years ago,” said Marcus Wasilewski, the senior quarterback, “to today, walking out to see and hear that support, it wasn’t close (in comparison). They showed up for us.”
It was a bittersweet comment. He and junior wide receiver Damarr Aultman and senior running back Rickey Stevens sat together trying to relive the most disappointing game of their Maine career and somehow, the best. They play to win. They play for each other’s respect. Down the list is appreciation.
Saturday’s game was to validate a winning season expected by no one outside their locker room. The question asked earlier in the week, did this team and this sport matter to Maine fans, was answered Saturday. At least in their eyes and ears.
That they and their teammates couldn’t beat a very good New Hampshire team in their second attempt in three weeks is wounding. It should hurt. Maine didn’t play its best. Maine won the Colonial Athletic Conference championship with its 7-1 record. The one loss was to New Hampshire in the regular-season finale. New Hampshire won the game that counted more and moves on to the next round of the NCAA playoffs.
Maine couldn’t contain sophomore quarterback Sean Goldrich and his backfield scrambling. He completed 16 of 27 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns, but at 6-foot-3, 213 pounds he was also elusive.
“I kind of make it up as I go,” he said. “I wanted to keep the mistakes out of the game.”
Goldrich played like he owned the game. He made his improvisation look like a plan.
If only Maine had done the same. The mistakes started on the opening kickoff when Aultman and Derric Johnson came together; each wanted to catch the football. Johnson recovered the fumble. The missed tackles on defense were more troubling. Maybe players were too caught up in the big moment.
Lack of discipline, said Coach Jack Cosgrove. His defense had been the backbone of this team. Saturday, they tried to play hero too often. Or on the big stage, forgot their lines one moment too long.
If Maine shrank from the bigness of the day, New Hampshire embraced it, much more familiar with the NCAA playoffs and the atmosphere that can tighten nerves.
“I can’t tell you what it’s like to have Maine and New Hampshire play a game in December,” said New Hampshire Coach Sean McDonnell. His team won the game. He was gracious and happy, and paid tribute to what Cosgrove and Maine had to overcome to reach the playoffs. Maine was a team that did come together under senior leadership and a coach who doesn’t blow hot or cold.
McDonnell is in his 15th season as head coach at New Hampshire. Saturday, he said he remembered Wasilewski as a freshman and marveled at the quarterback his defense had to stop. And it did.
The football season in Maine is over. The Black Bears lost.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: