ORONO — One highlight of the final week of preseason practice for the University of Maine football team is an evening devoted to dozens of local youngsters. They scramble over Morse Field, hurdling tackling dummies and bumping off pads held by the smiling behemoths wearing Maine jerseys and then, egged on by the collegians, the kids show off their touchdown dances.
It’s called Meet the Bears, and this year’s version included autographs and grilled hot dogs. What it did not include — as opposed to last August — was any temptation for recent arrivals among the coaching staff to join in meeting the Bears.
“You look at it now and it’s completely different, at least in terms of their experience of working here at Maine and working with me as the head coach,” said Jack Cosgrove, whose 21st season at the Black Bear helm begins Saturday night in Virginia against Norfolk State. “When you look at last year, the big focus was on the new quarterback, but we lost five full-time coaches from the previous season, the (2011) season.”
Training new assistants along with choosing an heir to record-setting passer Warren Smith from among Marcus Wasilewski and John Ebeling added to the early-season uncertainty for Cosgrove last fall, when Maine, coming off an NCAA quarterfinals appearance, dropped three of its first four games.
This fall, Wasilewski is the established senior leader of the offense and the only assistant coach not on last year’s staff is Dave Uimonen, who will help Jordan Stevens with the defensive line. Six assistants are in their second year in Orono.
“So going through last spring and summer was all new to them,” Cosgrove said. “Going through a game-day experience, just the preparation and how we do things up here was all new to these guys.”
The difference, Cosgrove said, has been a smoother training camp. That sense of stability extended throughout off-season workouts, where Wasilewski set the tone.
“It’s a real different place that he’s at right now compared to last year,” Cosgrove said. “It’s fun to be around that and it’s great to see it in him.”
The growth and maturity in Wasilewski was evident in the latter part of his junior season, when he led the Black Bears to victory in three of the final four games and finished off with 50-plus point performances against both Georgia State and Rhode Island.
“The thing that impressed me about Marcus was how he handled the ups and downs of his first year, and the ups certainly became more prevalent as the year went along,” Cosgrove said. “By the end of the season, I thought he really had a great understanding not only of our offense — he put up some real good numbers — but he also became a far better manager of the game in terms of situations and sideline communications and connecting on the things that we needed to do better, just a complete understanding of the quarterback position and its impact on his teammates and the game.”
* * *
Norfolk State still hasn’t announced a starting quarterback from among three red-shirt sophomores. Malik Stokes is a transfer from Bowling Green. Omari Timmons sat out 2012 after transferring from Albright College, a Division II school. Tyler Clark is a transfer from Old Dominion.
The Spartans have another transfer who is no stranger to the Black Bears. Tailback Rolandan “Deuce” Finch ran for 90 yards on 17 carries against Maine in last year’s opener (a 34-3 loss) at Boston College. Finch led BC in rushing as a sophomore but left Chestnut Hill after playing in only five games last fall.
* * *
Maine men’s hockey will be showing up in Portland at the Cumberland County Civic Center more in the coming years. Starting next winter (the 2014-15 season), the Black Bears will play rival New Hampshire once each in Orono and Portland as well as Durham and Manchester in New Hampshire. Only the on-campus games will count toward Hockey East standings.
Portland will also host the Ice Breaker Tournament on Columbus Day weekend of 2015 involving Maine and three other teams to be determined. Minnesota is this year’s Ice Breaker host followed by Notre Dame in 2014.
“That’s going to be great for the Portland fans,” said UMaine athletic director Steve Abbott, who worked with new coach Red Gendron on the schedule. “We wanted to put an emphasis on getting quality opponents in the Civic Center because there’s a strong fan base in Southern Maine. We want to give them some very exciting and top-notch college hockey.”