Fans at Alfond Stadium await the start of Maine’s football season opener Thursday night against Delaware. Mike Lowe photo

ORONO — Ken Ralph, the University of Maine athletic director, walked through the tailgating sections of the parking lot and listened to the laughter.

Thursday night’s football season opener against Delaware was the first time in 656 days – since a 34-30 win over Rhode Island on Nov. 16, 2019 – that fans could attend a game at Alfond Stadium. The 2020 fall season was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and no fans were allowed for the two homes games in the 2021 spring season.

On Thursday, the student section on the visiting sideline overflowed and the home side filled in slowly despite rain at the start. Ralph could sense the fans wanted to be back.

“As I was circulating through the tailgaters, I saw there were so many fans that hadn’t seen each other in two years,” he said. “This is a big part of their social life. To not have it last year left a hole in their lives.

“To see their commitment and to know that Maine athletics is a big part of their lives is really special.”

The fans weren’t the only ones excited to be back. The Maine players were looking forward to seeing familiar faces in the stands.

Maine’s stands were empty all of last school year, except for the baseball team’s final weekend series. Parents were allowed to attend those games.

In the days leading up to Thursday’s opener, junior linebacker Adrian Otero couldn’t stop thinking about having the fans there.

“Just going out there and seeing people supporting you means a lot,” he said. “I’m already getting amped up thinking about it.”

Quarterback Joe Fagnano said the fans add a big element to the game.

“They bring a lot of energy to the field, to the game,” he said. “When you’re at home, it’s a big advantage. When it’s a big third-down play on defense, they make a lot of noise. When you’re getting momentum, the fans help, they get the guys going.”

That was evident in the first half Thursday. Maine fell behind 17-0 and the fans were pretty silent. But as the Black Bears erupted for 24 straight points to take a 24-17 halftime lead, the fans loudly cheered on every play.

VACCINATION RATES are a big topic these days and Ralph said the Black Bears are doing well.

Of the school’s 425 athletes, Ralph said all but four are fully vaccinated. And those that aren’t have received exemptions that were approved by state officials, and will be tested three times a week, according to Ralph.

“Our students took this seriously,” said Ralph. “For some of them, this was a big ask. They were unsure and they did a very mature thing and that’s a nice thing to see.”

THE REMNANTS of Hurricane Ida passed through Maine early Thursday morning, leaving much quicker than anticipated. But there was a steady rain at the start of the game and a light mist was falling at halftime.

UMaine Coach Nick Charlton made sure his players were prepared for a wet night and a wet ball. On Tuesday, he put the Black Bears through a wet-ball practice. Coaches carried water bottles throughout the practice and continually wet the ball, making it slippery.

“We were just trying to make it harder for the guys,” said Charlton. “And they embraced it. They really enjoyed the challenge.”

Charlton said Tuesday that even if it wasn’t raining during the game, the field would likely still be wet and that the ball would get wet.

“We’ve got to be ready to deal with all factors,” said Charlton. “When things are wet, it accentuates the need to take care of the football.”

 


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