Last year the University of Maine football team won the Colonial Athletic Association championship for the first time in five years. But will success follow this season? It’s been 16 years since UMaine has had back-to-back winning football seasons. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

ORONO — Elevate The Standard.

That’s the slogan embraced by the University of Maine football team. A year ago the Black Bears (10-4) had a stunning season, winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship, then advancing to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for the first time.

Their goal is to do even better this season, beginning with the start of training camp Thursday at Alfond Stadium.

“As a team we know what we can do,” said junior quarterback Chris Ferguson, who enters his third season as the starter. “We know we can get back to those places we were last year, that we can be a really good team. But it’s about doing extra, elevating what we did last year.

“You have to do more this year. You can’t do the same we did last year.”

People on the outside certainly have noticed. Maine was picked to finish third this season in the CAA – considered by many to be the most competitive FCS conference – behind James Madison and Towson. Athlon Sports ranked Maine sixth in its annual preseason national poll. Senior cornerback Manny Patterson was a preseason All-America selection by both Athlon and Hero Sports.

But preseason polls and individual honors are one thing. Doing it on the field is another.

Since the CAA added football in 2007, Maine hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons. In fact, you have to go back 16 years to find the last time Maine had consecutive winning seasons. In 2001 and 2002, the Black Bears won back-to-back Atlantic-10 titles, then followed up with a 7-5 record in 2003. And that’s it.

Nick Charlton, at 30 the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I football, has pointed out the program’s history several times to his players.

“I think our guys are aware of the expectations, but they love playing and they want to be consistent winners,” said Charlton, who was promoted to head coach in December after Joe Harasymiak departed for the University of Minnesota. “And that hasn’t happened here in a long-term fashion.

“That’s why this challenge is greater. I think Michael Jordan said it, ‘You can do it once but can you do it again?’ That’s a tremendous challenge for us. And that’s why, with the expectations and stuff, it’s exciting because our guys know they can build a legacy here.”

Maine certainly has the pieces to repeat its success or do better. Eight starters return from a defense that was one of the best in the nation, ranked first against the run (79.2 yards per game), fourth in sacks and sixth in tackles for a loss. While the Black Bears lost linebacker Sterling Sheffield (now in the Cincinnati Bengals’ training camp) and safeties Jeff DeVaughn and Darrius Hart, they return their top two tacklers in linebackers Deshawn Stevens (120)  and Taji Lowe (85). Also returning are sack leader Kayon Whitaker (9.5), Patterson (who led the nation with 25 pass break-ups) and a slew of other experienced defenders.

The offense also graduated some crucial pieces in wide receiver Micah Wright, tight end Drew Belcher and right tackle Cody Levy. And Ramon Jefferson, the team’s leading rusher last year with 1,037 yards and eight touchdowns, transferred after he was suspended for an off-campus incident. But Ferguson is back after throwing for 2,372 yards and 22 touchdowns, and he has four talented receivers in Earnest Edwards, Jaquan Blair, Devin Young and Andre Miller, the former Old Town High standout. The offensive line has five players back who started games last year.  Joe Fitzpatrick, the former Cheverus star from North Yarmouth, will lead a group of new running backs.

“We know there’s no catching anybody by surprise this year,” said Fitzpatrick, who gained 476 rushing yards in 2018. “And that’s a good thing, when you think about it. We had success last year, we’re happy with what we accomplished, but we weren’t fully there yet with what we had in mind. That’s what we’re going for this year.”

Edwards, who returned two kicks for touchdowns last year, said the team is motivated by the 50-19 loss to Eastern Washington in the national semifinals. “We went out sad last year,” he said, “but we got more experience … We put ourselves in a position to be successful.”

Winning in consecutive years isn’t easy. Jack Cosgrove, who coached the Black Bears for 23 years before retiring in 2015, knows this. “There’s a fine line between winning and losing, especially in the CAA,” said Cosgrove, now the head coach at Colby College. “Any time you look at a really successful season, there’s a game or two in there that could have gone either way that went your way.”

Last year Maine won four games by three points or less. Kenny Doak kicked last-play winning field goals against Villanova (13-10) and Rhode Island (38-36), Jordan Swann blocked a field goal in the final minute to preserve a 31-28 win at Western Kentucky and the defense made a frantic stand in the final seconds of a 27-26 win over Elon.

Any of those games go the other way and Maine’s season is dramatically different. “You always have to be conscious of the fact of how close you were,” said Cosgrove. “Will it go that way this year?”

The Black Bears believe it can. And will. Whitaker, a senior, noted that about 80 players spent the summer working out on campus, the most he’s seen.

“That shows we’re moving in the right direction,” said Whitaker. “We embrace challenges here at Maine. We want to be the best.”