ORONO — The 2008 season left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of the 35 lettermen returning for the University of Maine’s 118th season, and that taste lingered as the Black Bears opened their preseason training camp Saturday.

The team took both positives and negatives out of their 8-5 campaign in 2008, coach Jack Cosgrove said. The most lasting positive for the Bears was that they went to the NCAA FCS playoffs for the fifth time in the program’s history. The most lasting negative was that they got clobbered at Northern Iowa, 40-15, in the first round.

“I think both can drive us, and I hope both are,” he said.  

Cosgrove, entering his 17th year at Maine, has good reason to hope, especially if the comments made by his players at the team’s annual media day Wednesday are any indication.

“Last year was a step in the right direction but ended as a real disappointment — going out to Northern Iowa and getting blown out,” said sophomore fullback Jared Turcotte of Lewiston. “It was nice to be in the playoffs again, but we just got started last year. This year brings new expectations and new goals for the team.”

“There’s no doubt that getting (to the playoffs) makes you want to get back there even more,” said senior QB Mike Brusko.

Brusko, a tri-captain who returns as the Bears’ clear-cut signal-caller after splitting time at QB with Adam Farkes for the last two seasons, made it clear just getting back to the post-season wasn’t acceptable.

“Last year, at the end of the year, he sat in front of the team in a players-only meeting and said him leaving here with anything less than two rings on his fingers, one for a conference championship and one for a national championship, would be a disappointment,” Turcotte said. 

“Just hearing guys say everything is about winning the championship and
everything is about getting this team to where we want to be, getting
back to the playoffs and going further, not just being content with
getting there,” Brusko said. “If you can develop that mentality and instill
it from top to bottom, I think that is the most important thing.”

Maine will officially begin its quest for back-to-back playoff appearances (the last time was 2001-02) on Sep. 3 when it hosts St. Cloud State. The Colonial Athletic Association conference schedule kicks off Sep. 12 at Northeastern. The 2009 schedule also includes a stop at Division I Syracuse (Sep. 26) and a visit from defending FCS national champion Richmond (Oct. 17).

The Black Bears return 14 starters (eight offense, four defense and two kickers). Brusko and Turcotte, a preseason All-American and All-CAA selection, lead the offense. Tri-captains Brandon McLaughlin and Jordan Stevens, the former Mt. Blue star, lead the rebuilt defense.

Spurred on by their captains and incentives implemented by strength and conditioning coach Dan Nichol, Maine had near-unanimous participation in the off-season training program. That was another indication of the team’s commitment to this season, Stevens said. 

“We had a great turnout all summer. We had pretty much the whole team up here,” said Stevens, a defensive end from Temple. “All of the returning guys and some freshmen came up, too. We could push each other working out together.”

The players bonded outside the weight room as well.

“It was great camaraderie,” said sophomore right guard Steve Shea of Corinna. “Just having the whole line up here was cool. We went to play softball a lot and had home run derbies.”

The Black Bears welcomed 31 freshmen into the fold this week, including Leavitt product Doug Nash. The new additions aren’t holding them back, although they are just now getting into the real grind of camp.

“I don’t know about the younger guys, but I’m having fun,” said McLaughlin, a senior linebacker. “Their heads are spinning right now, but we’re trying to get them comfortable and keep them uncomfortable at the same time.”

“I haven’t walked off this field not feeling like we made substantial strides in the first five days here,” Cosgrove said. “Now, we’ll find out something else about ourselves (Thursday) because it’s double day and we’ll see if we can practice in the morning and then come back out in the afternoon and practice like we did in the morning.”

Picked to finish third in the CAA North preseason coaches’ poll and coming off a season in which they were the final team selected to make the playoffs, the Black Bears know even the smallest strides can make big difference this season.

“The league is strong from top to bottom,” Stevens said. “Coach says you’ve got to come prepared with your ‘A’ game every Saturday because the margin of victory is always small.”

University of Maine football players lounge in the sun during media day in Orono on Wednesday afternoon. Players in the foreground from left are: freshman offensive lineman Josh Spearin (71), sophomore tight end Derek Buttles (80), freshman offensive lineman Matt Spearin (74) and freshman quarterback Nate Doehler (17).

Doug Nash, a freshman defensive lineman from Leavitt Area High School, sits with his teammates during media day in Orono on Wednesday.

Mount Blue High School standout Jordan Stevens, center, talks with teammates Kris Enslen, left, and Mark Masterson during media day in Orono on Wednesday.

Head Coach Jack Cosgrove climbs past his players as the University of Maine football team lines up for a team picture in Orono on Wednesday.

Photographers shoot a team picture of the University of Maine football program during media day in Orono on Wednesday.

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