They weren’t always friends. In fact, to Zach Bessette, one of them was the enemy.

Bessette had starred at goalie for the Maranacook/Winthrop boys lacrosse team. Seth Wing was the star scorer for Gardiner. The two teams clashed often, with the two players going face-to-face frequently over the course of the game.

So when Bessette arrived at the University of Southern Maine, where Wing was already on the roster, it became time for a mindset adjustment.

“I didn’t know what to think of Seth at first because I saw him as an enemy compared to a teammate,” Bessette said. “His senior year, my junior year, I think we lost to them three times in overtime.”

Combining forces has worked out pretty well for both of them. Along with Messalonskee grad Nate DelGiudice, the central Maine trio has become the heart of the USM program, leading the Huskies to new heights that have included the team’s first home playoff game and a berth in the Little East Conference semifinals, where they’ll play Eastern Connecticut State on Thursday.

“Once I got to know Nate and Seth, they turned out to be really good teammates and two guys that I’m pretty close with,” Bessette said. “Seeing how we’ve all grown into leaders on the team has been really cool to see. … It’s really cool seeing history being made and being part of that with them.”

While the Huskies have made strides as a program, the three seniors have etched their names into the record books. DelGiudice is the team’s greatest playmaker, with his 150 career points setting a program record. Wing is USM’s all-time leading goal scorer, with 99 for his career. And Bessette is the team’s winningest goalie, with 22 victories on the ledger.

They’ve provided the engine for a team that has steadily improved after winning only two games in Wing’s first year.

“It’s definitely good to get personal goals like that,” DelGiudice said, “but I think if you ask any of them, just to see the team and how it’s grown, I think that’s what we look for more.”

“It’s a huge deal,” Wing said, “and I feel like the hard work I’ve put in myself and Nate and Zach has really showed in the improvement of the program.”

They’ve taken different paths to this point. While Bessette joined out of high school, DelGiudice pursued hockey first with two years in juniors after a stellar career at Messalonskee, only to realize in his freshman year that he missed lacrosse.

“Any time I can kind of compete and play a competitive sport at a high level, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “I love to compete, it was another chance and it ended up working out well for me.”

Wing, meanwhile, was set to depart after last year until a distal tibia fracture seemed to end his career on a discouraging note. Given a medical redshirt, however, he was able to return this season, and said he’s felt healthier this spring than at any point before.

“I just felt like I got cheated,” the four-year captain said. “It was tough at first because I wasn’t sure how it was going to affect my career, but I was glad that it didn’t hinder me at all.”

They’re all together now for a final run at postseason glory, and they said a bond that was there from the beginning has only grown.

“I think we have a unique bond because we’re able to relate to each other in a lot of ways,” Wing said. “Especially with our lacrosse background being from central Maine, it’s not the same as everyone from southern Maine. We play more hard-nosed up north.”

That bond has translated into chemistry on the field. While Bessette, another captain, leads the defense, Wing and DelGiudice have honed an on-field relationship through years as two of the team’s top offensive threats.

“Our chemistry is unmatched on the team,” Wing said. “I know where he’s going to be most of the time, and looking at my stats, most of my assists are to Nate and most of his assists are to me. I feel like we just really find each other on the field.”

“Especially this year, we’ve really complemented each other,” DelGiudice said. “We have to try to lead the way, and I think we’ve done a good job with that.”

With the central Mainers leading the way, the attitude on the Huskies has changed. A team that used to be an afterthought in the Little East Conference is now one of its better teams, a status validated by Tuesday’s 8-7 quarterfinal victory over UMass Darrmouth.

“Guys will transfer to USM, and they don’t realize how hard we work until they come to a few practices,” Bessette said. “Practices get heated because everyone wants to be better, everybody wants to get that goal, make the save and win the game. Practicing like you play really carries over, and putting in the work when nobody’s looking.”

That mentality showed after the Huskies dropped five straight following an opening victory to put a third straight postseason berth in doubt. USM rallied to win five of its next six games and seven of its next 10, the latest being the quarterfinal victory that gave Bessette, Wing and DelGiudice their first playoff victory.

“We started out 1-5, a lot of guys would call it quits at that point,” Bessette said.

USM didn’t, and that determination not to let the season end early has given way to a confidence that the Huskies still have their best lacrosse to play.

“I think we definitely have developed a bit of a swagger, especially in conference play,” DelGiudice said. “We think we can play with almost any team in the conference on any given day.”

USM has been proving it, and for the players leading the charge, it’s meant a lot that these breakthroughs have come in their final season.

“I think it’s been amazing for us to do this,” Wing said. “It’s seeing a dream finally come true, and that realization that all the work you’ve done, you’re finally getting rewarded for it.”

Still, despite what they’ve accomplished, each player is looking for a little bit more.

“We’re still far from satisfied, and that’s why I love where our team’s at,” Bessette said. “We could be undefeated right now and we still wouldn’t be satisfied.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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