ORONO — A year older, wiser and — knock on wood — healthier, the University of Maine football team is discovering that the injury woes and trial-by-fire ordeals of 2009 may have been a blessing in disguise.

The Black Bears open their season just three weeks from today at home against Albany, so with a more experienced team than last year’s 5-6 squad, getting off to a fast start during the first week of preseason is an expectation, not a luxury.

“We’ve been able to get past the being tired part and come out here and get work done,” junior running back Jared Turcotte said. “We’re sick and tired of being mediocre. We got a taste in our mouth in ’08, getting to the playoffs. This team is ready to put in whatever amount of work we have to put in to win the CAA and go as deep into the playoffs as we can.”

Maine returns 17 starters and 41 letterwinners from a roster that finished in second place in the Colonial Athletic Association North Division. That does not include two key returnees who were sidelined last season by injuries — Turcotte and senior linebacker Mark Masterson.

Completely rehabilitated from a sports hernia injury in his lower abdomen which required surgery last year, Lewiston’s Turcotte is expected to return to his All-American form of two seasons ago and give Maine the running game it sorely lacked in 2009.

“I haven’t been limited at all all summer,” Turcotte said. “I don’t really think about it. Everything gets sore, so I’m used to soreness, and that’s all I feel after practice. There’s no pain like there was when I was trying to sprint last year. I can do anything and everything everyone else can do.”

The absence of Turcotte and Masterson, a defensive stalwart who missed all but two games with a foot injury, combined with heavy graduation losses to make 2009 a rebuilding year. Whatever frustration that caused for head coach Jack Cosgrove is long forgotten.

“It was painful to go through last year without Mark Masterson,” he said. “Now, it’s special to have him with us.”

Cosgrove noted that Masterson, who received a medical redshirt last season, is one of 11 seniors on Maine’s roster. All but one, defensive back and special teams standout Dominic Cusano, is a fifth-year senior. The Black Bears had 11 seniors last season, too, but just one had been red-shirted at some point. 

Lisbon’s Levi Ervin, another fifth-year senior, thinks the Black Bears’ patience with their redshirts and the growing pains of 2009 will only make Maine stronger.

“There’s a lot of experience at the top and there’s also a lot of experience towards the bottom because a lot of younger players got on the field,” Ervin said.”We feel confident with the experience we have and the depth we have throughout each position.”

That includes quarterback, where a pair of juniors, Warren Smith and former Portland star Chris Treister are locked in a preseason battle for the starting job.

Smith transferred from Iona prior to last season and threw for nearly 1,700 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games before being injured in early November. Treister took over and had a record-setting performance in his first start.

Both quarterbacks see the preseason position battle as nothing but positive.

“It’s a healthy competition,” Smith said. “We don’t look at it like a rivalry or anything like that. We know the bottom line is with this competition, it’s going to bring our offense and our team to a higher level.”

“I’m focused on what I need to focus on to do better,” Treister said. “If you get into that whole mindset of it’s Warren against me, you’re not going to play well. We’re good friends, it’s a very healthy competition we’re in right now, and I think it’s bringing out the best in both of us.”

Cosgrove said he’s not concerned about the competition between Smith and Treister dividing the team or the lack of a clear No. 1 QB hurting the offense’s ability to jell in preseason.

Smith and Treister both had things to work on in their respective games during the offseason, and whoever demonstrates the most improvement during preseason could get the starting nod, Cosgrove said.

“I think we know what we’re looking for in our offense,” he said. “I think they know and they have to come out here and do it. I think there are expectations that we have for each of them to get better at certain areas. If they do, then that might be why they advance.”

Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Black Bears will be looking for more offensive balance after going from a dominant running team in 2008 to a one-dimensional passing team last year. The defense, meanwhile, must replace leading pass-rusher Jordan Stevens, but its linebackers and secondary are considerably more experienced than last year.

Maine is ranked 22nd in the Athlon Sports Preseason Top 25 but seventh in the realigned CAA preseason poll of head coaches and media. Hofstra and Northeastern, which accounted for two of Maine’s four conference wins last year, folded their football programs.

The rest of Maine’s schedule includes defending FCS national champion Villanova, William & Mary and Delaware, who were also ranked in the Top 25 last year, plus another date with Division I Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.


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