The University of Maine’s football season ended in bitter defeat Saturday afternoon, a 50-19 loss to Eastern Washington in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.

It took defensive end Kayon Whitaker until early Sunday to get over the loss. “You can’t dwell on the past and let things hold you back,” said Whitaker, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior from Washington, D.C. “You learn from your mistakes and look for ways to improve.”

And Whitaker, a first-team all-Colonial Athletic Association selection, knows this team can get better. Maine graduates only six players who started the game Saturday. The Black Bears, who finished 10-4, return eight starters on both offense and defense.

“Because of injuries, you could say we have 17, 18 starters back on both sides of the ball,” said head coach Joe Harasymiak, who finished his third year leading the program. “And that’s really exciting any time that happens. We were a young team. And the seniors did an incredible job to take this team to the next level. The expectations outside of our locker room weren’t high. And (the seniors) got the players to just worry about what was happing in the locker room, to put the team first. That was the biggest thing that happened this season, we changed the culture.”

Sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson said the senior leadership – from the likes of tight ends Drew Belcher and Julian Dunn, wide receiver Micah Wright, offensive tackle Cody Levy, linebacker Sterling Sheffield and safeties Jeff DeVaughn and Darrius Hart – set the tone for all the success. But he looks at what’s coming back next year and can’t wait for the offseason to begin.

On offense, leading rusher Ramon Jefferson (1,096 yards, eight touchdowns) and Joe Fitzpatrick (510 yards, four TDs) are back. On the outside, leading wide receiver Earnest Edwards (combined 14 TDs on offense and special teams) returns, as does Jaquan Blair (43 catches, five TDs), Devin Young (33 catches, one TD) and Old Town’s Andre Miller, who had a breakout game in the semifinal loss with nine catches for 129 yards and a touchdown. Five players who started at least eight games return to the offensive line.

On defense, the top two tacklers return in linebackers Deshawn Stevens (120 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, nine sacks) and Taji Lowe (85 tackles, 15 for a loss). They’ll be joined at linebacker again by Jaron Grayer. Whitaker (50 tackles, 9.5 sacks) returns up front with Jamehl Wiley, Alejandro Oregon and Charles Mitchell, who combined for eight sacks. Manny Patterson and Katley Joseph return as starters at cornerback.

“We have a lot of guys with experience coming back which is exciting,” said Ferguson on Sunday. “With the people we have returning and the culture building, it’s only going to go up from here.”

Coming off a 4-6 season in 2017, Maine was picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association but won the league championship. Then Maine won a home playoff game for the first time before advancing to the semifinals.

Next year’s schedule includes two more games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, Georgia Southern and Liberty. It also features FCS playoff teams Colgate, Towson and Elon. Harasymiak knows there’s no guarantee this year’s success will be repeated.

“That’s the challenge,” he said. “I guess you could say on paper anything less then the national semifinal next year is a bad year. But we want to contend for the CAA championship and be in the playoffs. Then, in our playoff system, anything can happen. We start with goals of beating New Hampshire – that will be our No.1 goal as long as I’m head coach, college rivalries are great and need to be taken seriously – winning the (CAA) North, which affects our recruiting, and winning the CAA.

“It’s not out of line to add a national goal now. It’s not going to be easy. We’re not going to catch people off guard – if that’s what people thought we did this year. We’ve got to be ready to play.”

Ferguson has no doubts that they will be ready. He said the team used 2017’s last-game, last-play loss to Stony Brook on a Hail Mary touchdown pass as motivation in the offseason. Now he said they have a new motivation.

“Losing is an important part of learning and failure an important part of life,” he said. “After the (semifinal loss) I took a moment to take it in, remember it going forward. Any time in the offseason we need motivation we can think about that.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH


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