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The Sports Edge – King Football

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From somewhere around the time Shawn Walsh led the Maine Black Bear hockey team to their first Frozen Four in Lake Placid, New York in the late 1980s, the ice hockey program has been the crown jewel of University of Maine athletics. 

National Championships in 1993 and 1999 and a lengthy string of NCAA tournament appearances cemented that status by the turn of the century. Expansions to Alfond Arena and the surge in high school programs around the state were a testament to the allure of the Bears, as they established themselves as a legitimate national power, boasting one of the great home venues in college sports.

But times change, as does the level of competition, and now the hockey Bears are in the midst of a long, dry spell. From Tim Whitehead’s last few seasons through Red Gendron’s time at the helm, Maine hockey has made just one NCAA appearance in nine years.

There are lots of factors, most of which center around the dramatic increase in the number of schools playing hockey and fielding competitive programs. In the Shawn Walsh era, teams like Notre Dame, Quinnipiac and Union were also-rans and many of the teams that are Hockey East powers today couldn’t hold a candle to Maine. And while Alfond still provides a great game atmosphere, the facilities lag behind other schools even within the conference. They have a talented coach in Red Gendron, who was an assistant during the Black Bear glory days and is held in high regard throughout the ranks of collegiate and professional hockey, but the odds of Maine dominating like they once did are distant at best.

But as fans were wringing their hands over the struggles of the hockey program, Black Bear football has emerged as a regular playoff contender.

Playing in the Colonial Athletic Association - one of the top two conferences in the FCS ranks - the Bears have reached the NCAA playoffs five times since 2001, advancing to the national quarterfinals on three occasions. Former coach Jack Cosgrove created a big-time atmosphere, with a broader recruiting base, charter flights outside of New England and a highly-competitive non-conference schedule that has included games at Nebraska, Iowa and Mississippi State.

Two weekends ago, James Madison University won the Division I National Championship and the Black Bears were the only team all year to hold a lead over them at the half. CAA teams have played for the national title nine times in 14 years (winning five) and dominated the Top 25 rankings for more than a decade.

Last season Maine football shattered the all-time Alfond Stadium attendance record, averaging better than 8,000 fans a game and turning the game-day tailgating experience into one of the best in the Northeast. I believe they’ll begin next season in the Top 25 and be strong contenders for the conference championship and a return trip to the NCAAs.

When you combine the strength of the conference with their returning talent and young, aggressive coaching staff, Joe Harasymiak’s program is the team on campus that is the closest to winning a national championship.

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