Thursday, December 12, 2013
FORT KENT - Victor Ebanks says he understands cold. He can't. He's a 28-year-old freshman soccer player from Jamaica in this part of northernmost Maine for the first time.
The men’s soccer team at the University of Maine-Fort Kent is 9-0 and ranked sixth nationally. Only two of the players are from Maine. In fact, they’re the only two Americans.
Theresa Biggs is the 27-year-old senior captain of the University of Maine-Fort Kent women's soccer team. She stops her coach to ask if she can call her mother. Lucas Levesque gives her the keys to his office.
Biggs is from Cape Town, South Africa. Her family is there. She returned home last year for the first time in about four years. Her father had died.
Saturday, after the Fort Kent women defeated Daemen College 3-2, Biggs wanted to talk to her mom.
"It's probably against NCAA rules, letting her use my phone," said Lucas. "But we don't belong to the NCAA."
This is rural small-college sports at a true outpost, mere minutes from the Canadian border across the St. John River. Here, the challenges to succeed are great but the rewards much greater.
Here, only two of Coach Bill Ashby's 31 players on the men's team -- junior midfielder Jeremy Harper of Bath and sophomore goalkeeper Alex Caballero of Orono -- are from Maine. In fact, they're the only two Americans.
"I try recruiting Maine kids," said Ashby, who grew up in coastal Lubec in Down East Maine. "But they want to drive five hours south to go to school. They don't want to come five hours north."
More than half of Levesque's 25 players are Maine high school graduates, including sophomore goalkeeper Sydney Proctor from Thornton Academy and junior Jenn Colpitts, a forward from Scarborough.
Many of Colpitts' friends back home didn't really understand why she chose Fort Kent. Isn't that in the wilderness?
No, the Internet has come this far north. Cell phone reception is good.
Colpitts was attracted to Fort Kent's nursing program and the caliber of its international players. Biggs has played on South Africa's national team. Kimika Forbes is the goalkeeper for Trinidad and Tobago's national soccer team.
The Fort Kent men's and women's teams won the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association national soccer championship in 2010. The women won again last year. The men lost in the Final Four on penalty kicks.
This year, both are 9-0. The women are ranked first nationally; the men are tied for sixth.
Not many soccer fans south of Houlton, at the northern end of Interstate 95, would notice. I'm guilty, too.
Two years ago, the University of Maine-Fort Kent beat Middlebury College, the year after that elite Vermont school won the NCAA Division III national championship. Middlebury dropped out of the top 25 rankings after that.
This fall, Fort Kent beat a good Colby team, 1-0. Colby doesn't consider it an official game and Fort Kent doesn't see it as a scrimmage. Call it a friendly.
I didn't know any of this until a Portland Press Herald copy editor showed me an email Wednesday night. Fort Kent beat the University of Maine-Presque Isle 10-0 to win the venerable Potato Barrel for the 12th straight time.
The two colleges have been playing for this 3-foot-high, somewhat battered keg since 1978. Presque Isle leads the series, 18-17.
Saturday afternoon, rain fell while the women played and fans opened umbrellas. It is a bit early for snow here. Forbes made some very big saves.
"The community supports these kids," said Levesque. "I guarantee that tonight, if my players are (somewhere downtown) they're going to hear they made a great play, took a great shot or made a great save."
Ashby agrees. Because of the isolation, the community accepts the players as people first. When Ashby tells his Jamaican recruits to bring winter gear, they think sweaters. The community helps out with parkas and the like.
(Continued on page 2)