BIDDEFORD — Friday night there was visual proof.

Football has come to the University of New England.

More than 70 players dressed in shorts, UNE practice jerseys and unadorned white helmets ran onto the big blue turf at 7:07 p.m., to applause from family and friends, for the first practice in program history.

But before the players hit the field, Coach Mike Lichten probably let them know that while they are the first to wear UNE football gear, they were not the first to commit to UNE football.

“This isn’t the starting point,” Lichten said Thursday, the day before his team arrived on campus. “The starting point was two, three years. Everybody forgets the monumental commitment made by the administration and all the people that have had a hand in getting us to this point.”

Players arrived by 9 a.m. They were medically and financially cleared. They went through an NCAA compliance meeting. They were given their playbook and had football meetings.

“We could only feed them once – it’s an NCAA rule – so I’m really happy with how they persevered through that,” said Lichten, who informed the media beforehand that his players wouldn’t be available for comments.

As practice closed at 9 p.m., the energy was high, players cheering each other on through the final conditioning drills.

Lichten pulled his team together and reminded them how rare it was to be cheered for coming to practice. The team broke its huddle with Lichten saying, “take a step,” and the team responding, “to the top.”

The practice started with the teams split into offensive and defensive groups with the offense running through a series of plays.

“If we’re going to expect these guys to play fast and tough, they have to know what they’re doing. So before we even run and stretch them, we make them mentally go through what they’re required to know,” Lichten said.

Lichten called them together for a brief exchange before conditioning.

“Do the little things well,” he said.

And later, “Either it matters to you or it doesn’t. Don’t tell me. Show me.”

In an hour-long interview Thursday, Lichten’s bearded 31-year-old face was stuck on one setting: Stern. His answers to questions were thoughtful, complete and usually assertive.

He said when he and his three full-time assistants were on the recruiting trail they were looking for players who had, in order, academic integrity, high moral character and a love for football.

That message resonated with Mike and Lee Roberts of Lynnwood, Washington, a town just outside Seattle. Their son, Haelin, is a wide receiver, one of the 61 freshmen in the first recruiting class, and they drove cross country to see him off.

“It was Mike and Kenny (Treschitta, the defensive coordinator). Quite frankly, they were honest,” Mike Roberts said.

“We felt we could trust our kids being here, and that the schooling would come first and then the football,” Lee Roberts added.

This year, UNE will play a nine-game schedule, all off campus. The first six games will be against New England Division III junior varsity teams, opening Sept. 2 at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. The final three games will be against prep schools, including an Oct. 21 game against Kirkland (New Jersey) Academy at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.

The Nor’easters will be full varsity members of Commonwealth Coast Football in 2018.

Lichten said playing a year at the junior varsity level is needed to “develop our players and get them used to playing college football. It’s a different speed, a different expectation. The preparation is different. Everything is a little different from what they’re used to, and to shield them from what’s going to be expected when we’re a varsity program in 2018 would not be beneficial to their development.”

Playing a year of JV also gives UNE a better chance of immediate success, according to Bowdoin Coach JB Wells.

Wells was the first football coach at Endicott College, which played a JV schedule in 2002, then went a respectable 4-4 in its first varsity season.

“Teams that have played varsity right away have unanimously failed in that first year, and if you unanimously fail then it’s tough to come back,” Wells said.

Wells said UNE and Lichten are facing a stronger competitive environment than when Endicott entered. But Lichten will have put together two full recruiting classes before the first varsity game (Wells had one).

“I did talk to Mike, but I didn’t have to tell him anything,” Wells said. “He’s a good football coach and he was able to win at the last place (Becker College) with a lot fewer resources than he has now, with UNE’s academics and its graduate programs.”

As the players jogged to the field, they went past the construction zone where a 35,000-square foot addition to Alfond Forum is well on its way to completion.

When finished – expected by the end of the first semester – it will include a 6,000-square foot multiuse function room, academic space, additional locker rooms (including a new space for football), and expanded areas for strength and conditioning and athletic training.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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