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UMaine football wins CAA conference title

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An action shot from UMaine football's 28-9 win over Albany on Oct. 27. An action shot from UMaine football's 28-9 win over Albany on Oct. 27. (edge photo by Kevin Bennett)

ORONO - Exceeding expectations has been a way of life for University of Maine football for many years but this year’s edition of the Black Bears is taking that practice to new heights.

Last Saturday, Maine clinched the outright championship of the nation’s toughest FCS conference, the Colonial, with a 27-26 white-knuckle victory over Elon of North Carolina, and earned a berth in the 24-team postseason playoffs in the process.

The Black Bears were rewarded for their conference championship with a #7 seed and a first-round playoff bye. Maine will host the winner of the Jacksonville State-East Tennessee game at noon on December 1. The Bears were one of a record six CAA teams to make the playoff field.

While their bracket means the Bears could potentially travel out west to play teams like Weber State and Eastern Washington in a deep playoff run, they do avoid defending national champion North Dakota State and dangerous Kennesaw State, which runs a triple option offense that can cause major headaches, at least until the title game in Frisco, Texas in early January.

That Saturday win over Elon was a microcosm of a season that has seen the Black Bears repeatedly overcome adversity. In the clinching game, starting quarterback Chris Ferguson re-injured a shoulder that has caused problems since he was first hurt early in the year against Central Michigan. The offense sputtered for much of the rest of the game, but Maine’s special teams stepped up with Earnest Edwards, known as “Electric Ernie,” returning two kickoffs for touchdowns, a feat that had never been accomplished by a Black Bear, and a blocked punt set up a field goal by sophomore Kenny Doak. The defense lost stalwart defensive lineman Chuck Mitchell early in the game but Skyler Bowman, who was awarded a full scholarship at the end of preseason, came up big for the Bears.

This championship season was forged in many ways by a tragedy that occurred before camp even opened. Darius Minor, a talented incoming freshman from Virginia, died during workouts in early summer. Maine’s players and coaching staff, as well as the entire athletic department, rallied together and the team formed a bond that has given them the strength to weather any challenges that a mere game could throw at them. Coach Joe Harasymiak recognized that bond and the role Minor has played in the team’s success by presenting the game ball to Darius’s mother and family members after the last road win at Richmond.

Maine’s first conference title since 2013 has featured some outstanding individual performances from the emergence of redshirt freshman running back Ramon Jefferson to the shutdown run defense keyed by Sterling Sheffield and Deshawn Stevens and a talented D-Line but coaches and players always go back to the notion of team. When one aspect of their game has struggled, other components have risen up.

These Black Bears have dealt with injuries, the toughest schedule in team history (including only four home games) and the tragic death of a young teammate, only to come through the fire with the game of football in perspective and their belief in each other stronger than ever.

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