The University of Maine was picked to finish eighth of 12 teams in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason football poll Tuesday and that didn’t surprise anyone from the league’s northernmost post.

“It happens every year,” said Joe Harasymiak, entering his third season as the Black Bears head coach. “Our guys are used to it. As any coach will tell you, (the preseason ranking) doesn’t have anything to do with how things play out.”

Actually, this is the highest the Black Bears have been ranked in Harasymiak’s three seasons, picked ninth in each of the first two.

Regardless of where they’re predicted to finish, the Black Bears look to improve this year. They finished 3-5 in the CAA last year, 4-6 overall, but return 15 players with some starting experience. Eight of them are on defense.

“Obviously they don’t think much of our team, looking at it finishing eighth,” said senior tight end Drew Belcher. “It’s a bit of a smack in the mouth. But it’s better when you get to be the underdog and prove people wrong.”

James Madison was picked to finish first, receiving 21 first-place votes from the league’s head coaches and media relations directors. New Hampshire was picked to finish second, receiving two first-place votes.

Maine opens the season at Alfond Stadium against New Hampshire, on Aug. 30 at 7 p.m. The Wildcats have beaten Maine eight consecutive times.

“I’ve never been beaten by a team four years in a row,” said senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield. “Our plan is to stop that this year.”

Three Maine players received CAA preseason all-conference honors: junior defensive lineman Kayon Whitaker, junior kick returner Earnest Edwards and senior special teams player Mozai Nelson.

Whitaker came on last year to record a team-high 8.5 sacks and 14 tackles for a loss, while ranking second on the team with 65 tackles.

Edwards, a wide receiver, was a first-team all-CAA selection a year ago as a kick returner, averaging 24.5 yards per return with a touchdown.

Nelson, a first-team all-CAA specialist a year ago, recorded 16 special teams tackles and one blocked punt.

Sheffield said he sent a text message to Whitaker at 8 a.m. Tuesday to congratulate him.

“He did a great job last year,” said Sheffield. “He shows that hard work pays off. He sticks his nose to the grindstone and works on his craft every day.”

But Sheffield, who was a second-team all-CAA selection last year, said Maine’s defense has many players capable of stepping up as well.

“I feel every person on D will make an impact at some time,” he said. “An interception, a forced fumble, a sack … we have explosive players everywhere.”

Maine has to fill four positions on the offensive line and find a running back after Josh Mack, the nation’s leading rusher among Football Championship Subdivision teams, transferred to Liberty.

Belcher, who switched to tight end last year after Chris Ferguson was named the quarterback, likes what he’s seen from the offense in the spring and summer workouts.

“We’ve got guys to fill in on the offensive line,” he said. “At running back we still have (Joe Fitzpatrick) and (Ramon) Jefferson has impressed. He’s a beast who can take it all the way. At wide receiver a healthy Micah (Wright) will be huge. And Ferg got the experience last year and is ready to take the next step.”

The Black Bears will look to improve their finishes. They lost two one-point games (to New Hampshire and Stony Brook) in the final seconds and are 1-5 in November the last two years.

“We need to work on executing in the fourth quarter and crunch time,” said Sheffield. “Once we’re able to do that, a lot of games will come out our way.”


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