November 23, 2013

‘Palpable excitement’ around UMaine campus

The nation’s fourth-ranked FCS football team is making inroads on a campus where hockey long has reigned.

By Glenn Jordan gjordan@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

ORONO — Campbell Belisle of Yarmouth, a sophomore, considered the difference between this fall and his first at the University of Maine.

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University of Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski (7) and teammate Daniel Collins (14) celebrate after defeating Rhode Island 41-0 in an NCAA football game in Orono on Nov. 16. Their team now holds a 10-1 record. Their success has caused “a nice little bit of unity” on campus, a student says.

Michael C. York/The Associated Press

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“There is a palpable excitement that you feel around campus,” he said.

Having a football team with a 10-1 record – ranked fourth nationally in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, champion of the Colonial Athletic Association and on the brink of hosting an NCAA playoff game for the first time – can do that.

The Black Bears conclude their regular season Saturday at the University of New Hampshire. With a victory, they will bypass the first round of the 24-team tournament and earn a home game for the second round on Dec. 7.

The buzz on campus “sort of follows the football players around,” Belisle said. “But you also hear a lot more people talking about the game. And even though I haven’t been to one yet, you hear people talking about how exciting the game was and how excited they are for the next game. It’s a nice little bit of unity for the students here.”

At the five home games this fall at Alfond Stadium, Maine beat Bryant, Villanova, William & Mary, Stony Brook and, a week ago, Rhode Island, to clinch the conference title. The crowds ranged from a high of 6,917 (Oct. 19 homecoming) to a low of 4,068 (Nov. 2 against Stony Brook).

Belisle played soccer, basketball and baseball at Yarmouth High School, so he’s certainly interested in sports. He even has an appreciation for Black Bear athletics. His grandfather Charles Belisle played fullback for the last Maine team – before this year’s edition – to win a conference title outright. The 1965 Black Bears went unbeaten in the Yankee Conference and played in the Tangerine Bowl, the only bowl game in the program’s history.

In the nearly half-century since then, Maine has won two NCAA championships in men’s ice hockey – 1993 and 1999 – and reached the national semifinals 11 times.

“Hockey has a place in my heart that football doesn’t,” said one of Belisle’s two companions, Alexis Bowman, a sophomore from Waterville.

“It’s also at the highest level,” Belisle said. “Not to take anything away from the football team, but when you look at teams like Michigan and Ohio State and Alabama and you see stadiums packed with 100,000 people, it just seems on a different level. Whereas with the hockey team, that’s the highest level of college hockey that there is. They’re playing eventual national champions and people you’re going to see on NHL ice tomorrow. It’s sort of a different feel.”

‘A LOT MORE CHITTER-CHATTER’

Nonetheless, the football team is getting a growing share of attention on campus.

“I think football has kind of taken over, just because of how well the team is doing this year,” said Kevin Dumas, a junior from Sanford. “Plus, with the struggles the hockey team’s had over the past year, the football team is moving up a little bit.”

“They’re getting close to the hockey team,” said Jon Gatti, a freshman from Portland. “I’m not sure if they’re there yet, but they’re definitely getting close.”

“I’ve been hearing a lot of people talking about the games,” said Stasha Baldwin, a senior from Winslow who said she doesn’t follow sports. “There’s definitely a lot more chitter-chatter going on. People are more happy to talk about it.”

In the bookstore in Memorial Union, retail and marketing coordinator Colleen Gagnon showed off a large display of Maine football merchandise just inside the front entrance. Normally in late November, that space is filled with hockey merchandise, still her biggest seller.

Twice this month she opened the store for four hours on a football Saturday.

“We opened up at 11 o’clock before game time at 12:30,” Gagnon said, “and I had customers waiting in the hallways to get in and thanking us that we were open.”

She said Colonial Athletic Association championship T-shirts and sweatshirts are on order and the regular football merchandise is selling briskly.

“We’ve done very well and it’s nice, because the players are so genuine and humble, they really are,” she said. “They come in here and you can chat up with them.”

ATTENDANCE INCHES UP

Joe Roberts, the associate athletic director for external operations, keeps track of student attendance at football games. Students aren’t charged for tickets, but must present their student IDs to get them.

“We averaged about 1,065 students a game last year,” Roberts said. “This year, we’re up to 1,125.”

The first two home games, which started at 3:30 p.m. in September and early October, drew the most students, including a high of 1,979 against Bryant – still less than a quarter of the undergraduate enrollment of about 8,400.

The other three home games, 12:30 p.m. starts against William & Mary, Stony Brook and Rhode Island, drew smaller numbers, although there was a bump of about 150 students for the conference clincher last weekend.

Roberts isn’t sure what to expect for a home playoff game, but he’s hoping for a strong student turnout.

“It could be awesome,” he said. “It could be historic. We’re going to do everything we can to drive attendance, to get people excited ... We just need the home date to make it happen.”

Would Belisle consider attending a home playoff game?

“I am definitely going to that game,” he said.

Might be something to tell his grandson about someday.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

Gjordan@pressherald.com

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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