ORONO — Dan Maloney of Falmouth wasn’t expecting to spend his 56th birthday 3,000 miles away in Cheney, Washington.

Blame it on the Black Bears.

The University of Maine’s football team has achieved unprecedented success with two playoff wins in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. If Maine beats host Eastern Washington University on Saturday, it earns a trip to the FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 5.

Maloney, a standout offensive lineman at Maine from 1981-84 and a 1985 graduate, decided he needed to go to Washington to see Maine attempt to make history. He’ll be joined by three Class of ’86 Black Bears: his wife, Lisa, and former teammates Tim Cahill of Yarmouth and Jamie Keefe of Gray.

“I typically go to one game a year, but I’ve fallen for this team,” Maloney said. “This team seems to have a little more of that fighting spirit. I wouldn’t go out there if I didn’t think they had a shot.”

The excitement and support surrounding the 2018 Maine football team also feels unprecedented. For every alumnus like Maloney making travel plans, far more plan to be in front of a television at 2 p.m. Saturday, either at watch parties springing up across the state and around the country, or from the comfort of their own couches.

“I’m as excited as any sports fan in the state of Maine,” novelist Stephen King, Class of 1970, said in an email. “Being an alum makes the game even more exciting. I’ll be glued to ESPN2, which is covering the game, I understand. Go, Maine!”

On Maine’s campus, football usually plays second fiddle to men’s hockey. But there’s a buzz about the football team, which overcame the tragic death of freshman defensive back Darius Minor in the preseason to win its conference title, and carries a six-game winning streak into Saturday’s game.

The University of Maine Black Bears celebrate their win over Jacksonville State on Dec. 1. The team has racked up two playoff victories this season, reaching the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision semifinal on Saturday, and the fan base is growing.

“Maybe UMaine isn’t a big football-type campus, probably more hockey or basketball, but now that they’re gaining the momentum that they have, I’m hyped for it,” said freshman Courtland Pelletier of Methuen, Massachusetts. “I’m a big football guy in general, so seeing them play that well is awesome for me.”

Maine junior defensive back Manny Patterson said he’s feeling the love from students and staff alike.

“Walking through campus, people you’ve never seen before, never talked to, just being like, ‘Hey, man, good game,'” Patterson said. “One older guy, who was definitely a professor, stopped me in the hallway and was telling me ‘good game’ and having a deep conversation with me. … I ended up being about five minutes late to class for him but it was all worth it.”

Patterson intercepted a pass last week in a 23-18 quarterfinal victory at Weber State – one of four picks by the Maine defense. The Black Bears, who have the nation’s top-rated defense against the run, held Weber State to minus-1 yard rushing.

“That was the best defense I’ve ever seen at the FCS level,” said Jim Fox of Freeport, the leading rusher on Maine’s first playoff team in 1987.

Carl Smith of Saco agreed. Smith holds Maine’s single-season rushing record of 1,680 yards, set in 1989, one of four Maine teams to make the playoffs and lose its first game.

“Having good defense in the playoffs, that’s the way you win a championship,” Smith said. “What I saw of these past two games, I think they’ve got a good shot.”

MOBILIZING THE FAN BASE

Seth Woodcock, Maine’s associate athletic director for development, is trying to capitalize on the football program’s success for both athletic and general fund-raising.

“A winning sports program has a direct impact on admissions and recruitment of athletes with the other teams,” Woodcock said. “When you have a run like this, there’s so much attention, being on national television. That’s particularly important for us. We’re not a place where people just walk by.”

Woodcock oversaw a travel party of about 20 key University of Maine supporters for last week’s win at Weber State. About a dozen fans were on the team charter that left Thursday for Washington.

“That could be a lot more, but we try to keep the flight as normal as possible for the team,” Woodcock said.

Fan support extended to the spirit groups for the quarterfinal game at Weber State. An anonymous donor paid for the school’s marching band, cheerleaders and dance team to take a same-day charter flight. The school, however, does not have funding to send any auxiliary spirit groups to Saturday’s game.

Maine students will have options to watch Saturday’s game at the student union or local establishments. Sea Dog Brewing has been named the “official” NCAA FCS Semifinal Watch Party by the university and is hosting events at each of its four locations: in Bangor, Camden, Topsham and South Portland. Wearing UMaine gear earns 10 percent off the final bill.

“We’ve worked to engage our alumni to get together for the game whether they’re in Cincinnati or Florida, or Bangor or Portland,” Woodcock said.

‘HOW ‘BOUT THEM BLACK BEARS?’

Maine players have embraced the long-held belief that Orono’s isolation, raw climate and bare-bones athletic facilities make the Black Bears tougher.

“I think we all appreciate how hard it is to be where they are now,” said Brian Gaine, the Houston Texans’ first-year general manager and a tight end at Maine from 1991-95. “When I watch their team, it looks like a bunch of guys out there that love competing, love playing together, and love being on that team.”

Keefe was a hard-nosed inside linebacker at Maine and named the team’s Outstanding Defensive Player in 1985. Now a Portland firefighter and commercial diver, Keefe said he’s noticed the state catching on to Maine football in a new way.

“I hear people shouting, ‘How ’bout them Black Bears?'” Keefe said. “That’s never happened before. That has to be a good thing.”

If Maine beats Eastern Washington – “When we win,” Keefe said – he expects to have more travel companions for the national championship game.

“A lot of our old friends have already said that’s when they’ll go,” Keefe said. “Frisco is going to be full of Black Bears.”

Steve Craig can be contacted at 791-6413 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveCCraig

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