The University of Maine football team has gone from an afterthought in its own league to one of the final four teams standing in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

The Black Bears were picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association preseason poll. After Friday night’s 23-18 win over Weber State, they’re in the national semifinals for the first time.

In a joyous locker room after the game, Coach Joe Harasymiak – who choked up during his on-field post-game interview while reflecting on the season – had a simple message for his players: “Right now, as of this, you’re the best team to ever play at the University of Maine.”

It’s hard to disagree. Maine did participate in the 1965 Tangerine Bowl, but its seven previous forays into the NCAA playoffs never got past the quarterfinals, where the Black Bears were 0-3 before Friday night’s game.

“It’s unbelievable, honestly,” senior tight end Drew Belcher said Saturday afternoon. “I woke up this morning and almost didn’t think it was real. To be where we were at, last year we were 4-6, two years before we were 3-8, to just to go from that to being one of the final four teams left? It’s tremendous. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

Maine (10-3) will next play at Eastern Washington – a 34-29 winner over UC-Davis – at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

The Black Bear offense made just enough big plays Friday night – including a 67-yard touchdown pass from Chris Ferguson to Earnest Edwards and a clinching 45-yard run by Ramon Jefferson – to hold the lead. But it was the defense that shined brightest.

Maine held Weber State to minus-1 rushing yards, intercepted four passes and had 13 tackles for a loss.

Senior safety Jeff DeVaughn, a co-captain with Belcher, had two of the interceptions. “I just didn’t want to go home, it’s as simple as that,” said DeVaughn. “There’s a ball in the air and I wanted the ball … I didn’t want to let my teammates down.”

It’s that accountability that has carried the Black Bears all season.

This team rallied together even before the first practice of preseason, following the tragic death of freshman Darius Minor during a supervised workout in July. They found strength in each other, which has carried them through the toughest of times during the season.

“This goes to show you if you believe in something and are accountable to yourself and your teammates, you can accomplish anything,” said Harasymiak, who watched the UMaine women’s basketball game Saturday afternoon in Bangor, then went home to decorate his Christmas tree

“It’s so powerful when you have a group of young men who come together and buy into the brand and into the culture you’re trying to develop. When that happens, you play at another level.”

Maine, ranked 12th in the nation, has been overlooked all season, seldom being picked as the favorite in a big game.

Yet the Black Bears are 7-0 against ranked opponents after beating No. 3 Weber State.

“We’re underdogs each week,” said Ferguson. “And for us, we almost like to hear what people think. Then we just roll with it. It gives us more energy, more fuel. It makes us smile.

“We know who we are and who we’ve got in that locker room. We believe in each other in that locker room.”

They support each other. Even as the offense struggled at Weber State – just 3 of 15 on third-down plays – Ferguson and Belcher knew the defense would hold up its end.

“We know we have the best defense in the country,” said Belcher, who led Maine with five catches. “And we knew the game was going to be a slugfest like that. But we knew we had our defense to rely on. And they did what they do.”

Kayon Whitaker, Sterling Sheffield, Taji Lowe and Deshawn Stevens led a dominant front seven that completely shut down the Wildcats.

The secondary also was superb, with cornerbacks Manny Patterson (interception) and Katley Joseph (four pass break-ups) holding their own against Weber State’s speedy receivers.

And when the game got tight, the defense was at its best.

And Maine is moving on.

“We’re where we expected to be at the start of the season,” said Ferguson. “The guys believed that, no matter what everybody else said. We’ve been underdogs, and we’ve taken that identity and rolled with it. But we’re not done yet. We’re not satisfied.

“We want it all. That’s all we want.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH