It’s rare the road to Division I college baseball travels through Division III. It’s rarer still for that road to start at the University of Maine at Farmington. As he rode the Eastern Kentucky University team bus last week as the Colonels traveled to Eastern Illinois University for a weekend series, Edwin Thompson knew his journey to Division I head coach was not ordinary. UMF seemed so far away.

“It does, but the four years I had with Coach (Dick) Meader, the way he allowed me to grow and develop and make mistakes, that was so important to my career,” Thompson said.

A Jay native, Thompson is in his second season as head baseball coach at Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels are 21-20, 7-11 in Ohio Valley Conference play, heading into this weekend’s important series against Jacksonville State.

With 15 games to play in the regular season, Eastern Kentucky is three wins shy of tying its best mark five years. The last time EKU had a winning record was in 2012, when the Colonels went 31-23. The Colonels have not won the Ohio Valley Conference since 1989. That’s also the last time Eastern Kentucky went to the NCAA tournament. The Colonels haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since 1985. Baseball has been an afterthought at Eastern Kentucky. Thompson’s goal is to change that.

“It was down. They hadn’t had much success,” Thompson said of the Colonels teams in the years preceding his arrival on the Richmond, Kentucky campus. Last season, Thompson’s first, EKU went 24-31, a three-win improvement over 2015. “We’re trying to grow the program. We’ve had better success in non-conference games… We have 18 new players this year. We want to get our own guys on board, and the 12 seniors really bought in.”

EKU’s starting lineup in Tuesday’s loss to No. 2 ranked Louisville featured three freshmen and two sophomores. The Colonels lost 14-4, but those are the kinds of games Thompson knows his team needs to play. EKU’s non-conference schedule this season is brutal. The Colonels opened the season with four games at the University of Arizona, last season’s runner-up at the College World Series. At the time, the Wildcats were ranked No. 7 in the nation. EKU followed that series with a first game against Louisville. They’ve played Kentucky, another team in the top 10 nationally. The Colonels have games scheduled in May against SEC teams Tennessee and Missouri.

The tough scheduling is a way for Thompson to show his team what it can be. It’s a way for him to show the Colonels what he thinks they will be.

“We’re going to be playing teams like Louisville, like Vanderbilt, when we make the tournament,” Thompson said. “We might as well get used to playing them now. I like to challenge our team.”

Thompson is a baseball lifer. His coaching journey took him from UMF to Bates, where he was head coach one season before moving on to Duke as an assistant coach. He served as interim head coach with the Blue Devils for a month in 2012, before moving on to Georgia State, where he was an assistant coach for three seasons. Thompson also has worked with USA Baseball, coaching the U18 national team and U17 development team. All of it was building to this opportunity at EKU.

The Colonels are seeing more success on the ballfield, and they see it in the classroom. Last season, EKU was the only team in the Ohio Valley Conference, and one of 29 Division I teams, to receive the American Baseball Coaches Association Team Academic Excellence Award. To qualify, teams must have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.0. The Colonels GPA for the year was 3.09.

“We wanted to be consistent on and off the field. It’s been fun to have a program and put a blueprint on it,” Thompson said.

Chris Bessey, Thompson’s baseball coach at Jay High School, is now the head coach at UMF. Thompson keeps in touch with his old coach, and keeps tabs on how the Beavers are doing. Every time Thompson sees fellow Mainer and EKU basketball star Nick Mayo on campus, he asks the 6-foot-9 Mayo if he’s interested in restarting his baseball career.

“I coached Nick’s high school coach, Pete McLaughlin, at UMF,” Thompson said.

As Thompson reminisces about his coaching start as he chats on the phone on another EKU road trip, UMF didn’t seem so far away, after all.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM