It was the last game of the regular season, but Blake Hart was nervous, nonetheless. Playing soccer for Castleton State College at the University of Maine at Farmington, in front of family and friends, was enough to give Hart, a Mt. Blue High School graduate, butterflies.

“I circled this game on my schedule,” Hart said. “I was nervous, but one of my high school coaches said sometimes it’s good to be nervous.”

At the suggestion of team captain John Kendall, Hart was given the start at UMF, where he helped the Spartans take a 2-0 win and claim the North Atlantic Conference regular-season title.

A sophomore forward, Hart helped the team to a 12-3-2 regular-season record, including a 7-1-1 mark in conference play. If the Spartans win the three games necessary to take the conference title and earn a bid to the NCAA tournament, they’ll also tie the school record for wins in a season, 15, set in 2004. Castleton hosts Lyndon State in a quarterfinal game at 1 p.m. Sunday.

If Castleton has a successful run through the conference tournament, there’s no doubt Hart will be a factor.

“(Hart) works really hard at his game,” John O’Connor, Castleton’s head coach, said. “His best soccer’s in front of him, but he’s contributing now.”

Hart has three goals this season, and most recently scored in Castleton’s 3-0 win over Colby-Sawyer on Oct. 19. Hart started the first 10 games of the season, but recently has come off the bench to give the Spartans a spark.

“He has a rifle of a shot. He’s too unselfish at times. We want him to shoot,” O’Connor said. “He undertsands his role. He understands when he comes in, he has to bring us energy.”

Added Hart: “It’s good I can come off the bench and do what I can do.”

At 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, Hart is usually one of the bigger players on the field. A former basketball player at Mt. Blue, Hart knows with his size, he can win more 50/50 balls and control the game’s tempo.

“His big body helps us. A lot of teams in this league have some big kids. Blake’s soccer IQ is really good,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor took over the Spartans in February, replacing longtime head coach John Werner, who retired. O’Connor said he and Hart connected quickly, due to mutual friends. As Hart’s career progresses, O’Connor said he’d like to see Hart use his size more, to keep defenders shielded from the ball, and bring his aggresiveness down a little.

“He’s got skill. He could play a little bigger than he is now,” O’Connor said.

“I understand the game more,” Hart said. “The biggest difference from high school to college is speed. When you understand the speed, you understand the game.”

When he was looking at colleges, Hart wanted a school that wasn’t too close to home, but wasn’t too far, either. In Castleton State, a Vermont school not far from the New York state border, Hart found exactly what he was looking for.

“I was looking for a school that had Business and Sports Administration with a good soccer program, and Castleton was it,” Hart said.

Right now, Hart is focused on helping the Spartans reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

“Hopefully, this year we can win the NAC,” Hart said, “and keep it going next year.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242[email protected]Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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