BIDDEFORD — A year ago the University of New England football team had just over 80 players on its first varsity roster. This year, when preseason camp opened, the Nor’easters had about 120 – 57 of them first-year players.

UNE, a second-year NCAA varsity program, may continue to have growing pains but is maturing nicely.

“Honestly, it does feel really different,” said linebacker Keegan Stanton-Meas, a sophomore from Deering High who was the Commonwealth Coast Conference defensive rookie of the year in 2018. “I feel like this year we’re going to have a great chance to compete. I think last year was a building year because we were a start-up program.”

Junior quarterback Brian Peters added, “Coming back this year we’re just a better team. We’re closer together, we’re returning almost every starter, which will help, and everyone on this team is committed.”

UNE went 2-7 a year ago (one game was canceled because of a hurricane) and experienced a first for everything – practice, game, home game, win.

This year there is a normalcy to the preseason that comes with experience. But Coach Mike Lichten doesn’t want anyone to forget how special last year was.

“There’s some comfort in returning to normalcy,” said Lichten, “but I wouldn’t have traded having those firsts and being a part of the initial large moments of the program for anything. That’s an irreplaceable experience for me, for the kids, for the school. That was something that doesn’t come along for many coaches, kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

But Lichten has noticed that drills are run more crisply and instructions don’t have to be repeated.

“It’s great having players who are speaking our language in everything we do,” said Lichten. “It’s great having players who have expectations that match ours. They understand that something really special can happen here and they also understand the work that’s needed to reach that expectation.”

“The experience helps out from last year,” said junior wide receiver Ryan Gaboury, a first-team all-CCC selection last year. “It’s all about repetition and stuff like that. The faster you do things, the more you can do, it comes naturally more often. Your talent comes out and shines when you don’t have to really worry about all those lining up things and ticky-tacky stuff.”

Peters said last year’s growing pains – seeing NCAA Division III competition for the first time – were needed. “I think we grew and you could see that from the beginning of the season to the end,” he said. “This year I’m getting closer to my receivers, and our line’s getting better and the defense is looking better. We’re coming around as a unit.”

It’s been noted more than once to the players that no position is secure, especially with a large group of first-year players coming into the mix. Stanton-Meas was the league’s top rookie but has to work to keep his middle linebacker spot. Gaboury stays after practice to catch balls from Peters.

“The young guys definitely bring that competition aspect,” said Stanton-Meas. “I’m not saying we didn’t have competition last year but this year it feels real. Everyone is fighting for a spot.”

Pointing to the practice field, Stanton-Meas added, “Coach has made it clear this is where you earn your spot. That’s what we like.”

Certainly the added experience means greater expectations. But even those are tempered.

“It’s really about getting better every day,” said junior defensive back Joe Curit of Biddeford. “Keep on building that foundation, then the wins will come, obviously.”

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