The members of the University of Maine football team can expect to be a little jet lagged next week.
After traveling to Utah and prevailing over No. 2 Weber State last week in the FCS quarterfinals, the Black Bears are heading even farther west this weekend, taking on No. 3 Eastern Washington Saturday at 2 p.m. on ESPN2 for the right to play for the national championship.
Not that anyone is likely to complain about having to log more than 11,000 miles round trip over the course of consecutive weekends.
“It’s been incredible,’’ said Maine coach Joe Harasymiak. “Being in our first national semifinal, the campus buzz, and the community buzz, has been pretty special. It’s a great time for the university, for our program. We had national exposure last week [on ESPN]. The same thing will happen this Saturday. There’s just a lot of energy, a lot of momentum moving into Saturday.’’
Although this is Maine’s first foray into the semifinals, success for the program is not unprecedented. The Black Bears reached the playoffs five times from 2001-13 under coach Jack Cosgrove, including three trips to the quarterfinals.
Cosgrove stepped down after 23 seasons on the job, and Harasymiak, who had served as an assistant in the final five seasons of Cosgrove‘s tenure, threw his hat in the ring for the job. He was named Cosgrove’s successor on Dec. 16, 2015, becoming the youngest head coach in Division 1 at 29.
“I was pretty confident,’’ said Harasymiak, who played at Springfield College and later served as an assistant there for two seasons before heading to Orono. “I had been here for five years. I had a good relationship with [Cosgrove]. Maine’s a very unique place. I think what they wanted was someone that was familiar with the program, and knows how to be a part of it and win. It was a great experience, and I was lucky enough to get the job.’’
After going 10-11 in his first two seasons, the Black Bears broke through this year with an 8-3 season to capture the top spot in the Colonial Athletic Association and earn a first-round bye. Win in the second round and the quarterfinals have Maine sitting at 10-3 heading into this weekend.
While this is uncharted territory for Maine, reaching the postseason has become routine for Eastern Washington. The Eagles are in the playoffs for the 10th time in the last 15 seasons, and won the national title in 2010.
“They obviously have a reputation as a national program and have had exposure,’’ said Harasymiak. “They’ve been here before. They won the national championship. Certainly that’s what we’re trying to do this year. They’ve been here before, and we haven’t.’’
One of the leaders for Maine is senior captain Drew Belcher, who was a Globe All-Scholastic at Reading after quarterbacking the Rockets to a Super Bowl win over Mansfield.
Belcher saw time at quarterback in his first two seasons in Orono, before deciding to redshirt after his sophomore year, ahead of Harasymiak’s first year at the helm.
Maine was switching from a spread offense, which Belcher ran at Reading, to a pro-style offense.
“It wasn’t exactly a fit for me offensively, so after I redshirted, my coaches said, ‘We think you’d be a better fit at tight end, and that you have a real future at the position,’ ’’ Belcher said. “So I kind of trusted in what they were saying, and it’s worked out well so far. It’s kind of a natural fit for me.’’
Belcher made the shift shortly before the 2017 season opener. Although a bit undersized, he appeared in 10 games, hauling in 17 catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns.
“That first year was kind of tough. I was light,’’ said Belcher. “I was working out as a quarterback all offseason, so I probably played at 230 at tight end. It does have some limitations being lighter at tight end. I played more H-back and off the ball, because the defensive ends in our league are 270.
“In the offseason going into my senior year, I really focused on putting on some weight. I got up to 250, and that’s made a big difference for me, being able to block on the line, being more of a true in-line tight end.’’
Belcher has played all 13 games this season, hauling in 43 passes for 333 yards and one touchdown. His versatility also has allowed Maine to use him on trick plays, as he’s completed all four of his pass attempts for 61 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“He’s our best leader on our team,’’ said Harasymiak. “What he did in going from quarterback to tight end was the most unselfish thing that anyone could ever do. He put the team first, which a lot of young guys won’t do these days. He’s got that old-school mentality to him. He’s a great kid, and he’s such a great representative of our program.’’
Sophomore quarterback Chris Ferguson has thrown for 2,047 yards and 21 touchdowns, while redhirt freshman running back Ramon Jefferson needs 28 yards to reach 1,000 on the season to go with his eight touchdowns.
On defense, senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield was named a second-team All-American after registering 79 tackles and 9.5 sacks, while junior Manny Patterson is a lock-down corner with two interceptions and 22 passes broken up.
It’s a group that believes it is readyfor this weekend’s daunting task. Belcher believes the team will benefit from its regular-season experience, which included a pair of tough road games at Rhode Island and Western Kentucky in which the Black Bears had to rally for wins.
“We’ve played a lot of close games this year,’’ said Belcher. “Obviously we play in what we think is definitely the best conference in the country, playing in the CAA. We’re tested week in and week out.
“To be able to be the outright champions in our conference was a great accomplishment. To get a first-round bye and win these two playoff games against two good opponents, it’s been really special so far, so we’re looking to continue that success this weekend.’’