BANGOR – The day’s football practice was done, the sun had set 90 minutes earlier and the air temperature was dropping rapidly to near freezing. One person stood between the chilled players and their path to hot showers in the locker room. Gabby Price wanted to have the last word with his Husson University team.

The coach reached for hands to shake. Good job today, he said to anyone who came within his grasp. Good effort. Thank you.

Players could have avoided their head coach but very few did. They know who is responsible for their big date Saturday at home. Husson plays Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs. No previous Husson football team in its brief 12-year history has come this far and certainly not this quickly.

From 2010 through 2012, Husson’s records were 1-9, 0-10 and 2-8 under two different head coaches. Price, who started the program in 2002, left, then returned last season. The Eagles were 5-5 his first year back and 8-1 this year with upperclassmen who were recruited by someone else. That kind of transformation doesn’t happen easily.

Husson won the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference championship. Price was named Coach of the Year. Stephan Dance, a senior defensive back from London, Connecticut, was the conference Defensive Player of the Year. Alex Young, a senior from Rockland, was the Offensive Lineman of the Year. John Smith, a freshman running back from Fayetteville, Georgia, scored 13 touchdowns, averaged better than 127 rushing yards a game and was named the conference Rookie of the Year. Quarterback Joe Seccereccia from nearby Bangor High was one of several players named to the conference second team.

“They’re good players,” said Price. “They just needed someone to believe in them, starting with the coaches. They needed to believe in themselves. They needed a plan. They needed to find their own leaders. Our job as coaches was to guide them to discovery.”

The pieces to a puzzle were laid out in front of him when he returned from his four-year hiatus. He and his staff had to assemble them correctly. “Society tries to make things so hard,” said Price. “We try to keep things simple.”

The roster lists more than 100 football players. About 20 are from Cumberland County. But it doesn’t matter where they’re from, what class they’re in or where they play. Price tries to shake every hand after every practice and game. He’s 60-something and could be their grandfather. In fact, no one dares forget he’s their coach.

Caleb King, a senior tight end who played at Greely High, remembers the 0-10 and 2-8 seasons. He can’t forget his first exposure to Price and the new coaching staff. “It was a culture shift. Coach’s energy is unbelievable. He has so much passion. He knew who I was before I got to know him. Now people don’t want to let him down. You don’t want to let yourself down.”

Alex Martin-Wallace is a senior offensive lineman from South Portland. He ruptured his spleen in July, lost five liters of blood, had two surgeries and saw his weight drop from 285 to 220. The injury happened away from the football field and away from his summer job with a moving company. “The doctors couldn’t tell me how it happened. I could have coughed hard.”

He did hold his breath until doctors cleared him to practice only a day or two before preseason. Even then Martin-Wallace believed Husson could have a magical season. He didn’t want a ruptured spleen to hold him back or out. He regained most of his lost weight and his playing time.

Ken Sweet played at Deering High and went off to Plymouth State after graduation. “It was the wrong choice,” said Sweet, a sophomore defensive back and second-team all-conference selection. “I love it here. I have a great coach.” Sweet’s smile widened. No, he’s never had a hands-on coach in the manner of Gabby Price.

Ron Hargrove is a freshman wide receiver who played for Portland High last year. He grew up in Boston. Husson and Bangor might as well have been in another country. Hargove wasn’t part of the past but has bought into the present and the future. “When I came up for my visit I felt at home. It’s my coaches, my teammates … this team is one of the most determined I’ve been around.”

Determined but not satisfied, said Price. Playing MIT is just one more rung on the ladder.

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