March 13, 2010

UMaine surprise pick for playoffs

JENN MENENDEZ

— By

Staff Writer

They had long-shot odds.

Yet hope remained for the University of Maine football team.

Sunday night the Black Bears received an at-large bid to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, returning to the postseason for the first time since 2002. Maine (8-4) will face third-seeded Northern Iowa (10-2) at 5:05 p.m. Saturday in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

The Black Bears closed the regular season with a 28-24 loss to rival New Hampshire Saturday in snowy, blustery conditions. The loss appeared to dash their playoff aspirations, as four-loss teams seldom make the field.

Players gathered to watch the selection show on ESPNU in the team locker room and spun into a frenzy when their team was named to the field.

''Going from such a low (Saturday) to such a high right now is indescribable,'' said quarterback Michael Brusko. ''We felt so much pain, then sitting there and hearing our name called, all that pain just disappeared. Excitement doesn't do it justice. People were just in ecstasy.''

Maine is one of five Colonial Athletic Association teams to get into the field, following top seed James Madison, Richmond, Villanova and New Hampshire.

William & Mary did not get in, despite matching Maine's 5-3 conference record and beating New Hampshire. But the Tribe played just 11 games, going 7-4 overall.

''I don't know if there's a football god or not, but when we left the field (Saturday) with what was really a crushing loss, I felt real bad for the guys,'' said Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove, hoarse with laryngitis. ''As (Sunday) went on, there were some developments that perked me up, and I really went into the show not knowing but feeling very positive I was going to see our name up there.''

Cosgrove said he believes Maine's strength of schedule and strong finish -- coupled with its eight wins -- were primary reasons the team got the nod. Eight conference champions make the field, along with eight at-large bids.

''My fear was William & Mary (would get in), but the conference had to make a decision and they supported us,'' said Cosgrove. ''They did a nice job amping up Maine. It was just an exhilarating feeling to be able to stand in front of the team (Sunday night). I was privileged.''

After a 2-3 start with losses to Iowa, Richmond and James Madison, Maine put together a string of six straight wins that breathed life into the season.

The turnaround occurred despite potentially disastrous injuries to key personnel early in the season.

Tailback Jhamal Fluellen sustained a significant head injury Sept. 20, a game before quarterback Adam Farkes suffered a season-ending shoulder injury to his non-throwing arm.

Instead of falling apart, the Black Bears relied on a group of talented running backs, and Brusko came on to contribute to a rushing attack that averaged 272.5 yards a game during the six-game winning streak.

''We had some tough losses to some top programs,'' said defensive end Jovan Belcher. ''We didn't know how it would turn out, but we just had to keep our heads up, keep hope.

''We got in. All we needed was a second try.''

The selection committee is made up of athletic directors from the 10 conferences represented in the postseason.

Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Tom Yeager said the league supported all six of its potential playoff teams.

''We supported all of our teams that were basically playoff caliber,'' said Yeager. ''Both Maine and William & Mary unfortunately lost their last games. Again, it's a season-long body of work, and we tried to stress the absolute positives we could for all of our teams.''

Maine played at Northern Iowa in the second round of the playoffs in 2001, losing 56-28. The Panthers have been in the playoffs five times in the last eight years, losing to Appalachian State in the championship game in 2005. They beat UNH last year 38-35 in the first round and then lost to Delaware, 39-27.

With the bid now in hand, the Black Bears will get to work preparing for Northern Iowa.

''We're going to work,'' Cosgrove said. ''We know they're traditionally a very strong, good program.

''We're just excited. We would've gone anywhere.''

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

jmenendez@pressherald.com

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