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Historic Black Bears football season comes to a close

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Historic Black Bears football season comes to a close (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review via AP)

The ride is officially over for the University of Maine football team.

A storybook season – in many respects the greatest season in program history – came to an end with a 50-19 loss against Eastern Washington in the FCS semifinals.

The Black Bears overcame obstacle after obstacle over the course of the season, coming together as a team in the face of assorted adversities. From preseason poll disrespect to a punishing schedule, from early tragedy to ongoing injuries, all Joe Harasymiak’s team did was perform. It was a wild whirlwind of a year, one that saw UMaine surpass any and all expectations in making the playoff semifinals for the first time ever.

And it all came to an end on the red turf of the Eastern Washington Eagles.

There’s no shame in losing to this Eastern Washington team – they’re an immensely talented squad that received the third overall seed for good reason. Quarterback Eric Barriere set an FCS postseason record with seven touchdown passes, a record-tying four of which went to wideout Nsimba Webster. The Eagles were playing in the national semifinals for the fifth time in nine seasons – no strangers to deep playoff runs are they. They’ll go on to play the historically dominant North Dakota State Bison in the national championship.

There’s no doubt that this loss will stay with the Black Bears for a while, lingering throughout the weeks and months to come. But none of that diminishes just how exceptional a season this was.

Could any other team have dealt so thoughtfully and powerfully with the tragic loss of one of their own? The preseason death of freshman defensive back Darius Minor shocked and saddened this team, but they carried the young man’s spirit with them throughout the season, even going so far as to bring his jersey – number 39 – with them to the field for every game.

Could any other team have handled such a difficult, unbalanced schedule? This is a team that faced not one, but two FBS opponents – beating Western Kentucky and losing a tight one to Central Michigan. They had just four home games on the year, playing seven on the road over the course of the regular season. And yet they managed an 8-3 regular season and a CAA championship – their first in five years.

Could any other team have tuned out and ignored the naysayers and doubters? Before the season started, this team was picked to finish eighth in the conference. By the time the regular season was over, they were seeded seventh in the entirety of FCS football. Game after game saw them viewed as the underdog; the weekly polls elevated them only grudgingly, never giving them the respect warranted by their performance on the field.

This team saw a number of standouts. Chief among them is probably senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield, whose dazzling dominance – 84 tackles, 18 for a loss, 9.5 sacks – led to his being named to the STATS FCS All-America first team and the AP’s FCS All-America second team. Sheffield was joined on the top-tier defense by sophomore linebacker Deshawn Stevens (120 tackles, nine sacks), junior defensive back Manny Patterson (22 pass breakups, three interceptions) and junior defensive lineman Kayon Whitaker (9.5 sacks). Honestly, I could keep going; the truth is that there are more defenders - another half-dozen or more - who deserve to be singled out for praise.

On the offensive side, Chris Ferguson gave the Bears some consistency under center. Despite injury struggles, Ferguson threw for nearly 2,400 yards and 22 TDs against just 11 picks. Nearly half of those TDs – 10 – went to junior receiver Earnest Edwards. Electric Ernie caught 53 passes in total for 839 yards; he also scored two rushing TDs and returned two kicks (in the same game) to the house. Senior Micah Wright finishes his UMaine career fifth on the school’s all-time list in both receptions (168) and receiving yards (2,233). And freshman running back Ramon Jefferson was exceptional, rushing for over 1,000 yards and eight TDs despite missing two games.

Obviously, the Bears would have preferred a different outcome against Eastern Washington. But there should be nothing but pride in that locker room. The 2018 edition of the University of Maine Black Bears is the best in the storied history of the program; this group did things that no UMaine team ever has before.

Here’s to a job well done. Congratulations – and go blue.

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