Joe McCloskey and Rosevelt Smith Jr. never could have imagined playing basketball with each other until they became teammates at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.

Now McCloskey, a native Mainer, and Smith, a lifelong Californian, are leading the Bengals into the upper reaches of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division I national rankings.

The 6-foot-7-inch McCloskey, a former Penobscot Valley of Howland star, averages a team-leading 17.4 points along with 7.1 rebounds per game for coach Tom Bird’s club, which is 16-4 and tied for third in the latest USCAA Division I coaches poll.

Smith, a 6-4 guard from Fairfield, California, averages 13.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists per contest for UMFK, which plays second-ranked Washington Adventist University of Takoma, Maryland, on Sunday in its third game in as many days.

“In the USCAA there’s not a whole lot of Division I teams near us,” said Bird. “I think we’ll only play three Division I teams this season and one is coming up this weekend to play us at a neutral site in (Lynn) Massachusetts.

“We’re 16-4 but looking for a signature win in the USCAA and there’s not a whole lot of opportunities to do that, so it’s a big game for us.”

McCloskey, Smith, and their teammates hope the Washington Adventist matchup isn’t close to their biggest game of the winter.

“We’re in the USCAA where a national championship is definitely a feasible goal,” said McCloskey. “Winning a national championship and getting a ring is possible and every one of us knows it and wants it more than anything.”

That McCloskey and Smith have that common aspiration despite their vastly different geographic roots is a reflection of the steps some smaller colleges must take to attract student-athletes to their campuses — especially at locales like UMFK that are seen as remote by potential students from elsewhere within the state, let alone the nation.

“Kids from the Saint John Valley often want to experience life somewhere else, and kids from other parts of the state often feel like that if they’re going to have to travel four or five hours to go to school, they’d prefer to go south,” said UMFK athletic director and men’s soccer coach Bill Ashby.

“For kids from California, it’s just a plane ride.”

Basketball as the bridge

McCloskey, the lone Mainer on the men’s basketball team, opted to attend UMFK after witnessing his father’s induction into the school’s athletic hall of fame. Jim McCloskey surpassed 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds while playing for the Bengals during the mid-1980s.

“I just liked the place,” said the senior business major, who spent the 2011-2012 academic year at the University of Maine at Farmington. “The coach prior to coach Bird talked to me about coming here and I said yes. I verbally committed in March (2014).

“Then coach Bird got the job and messaged me and asked if I was interested in coming to Fort Kent and I said I already was coming. It worked out like a thing of destiny.”

Smith’s path to northern Maine was slightly more convoluted.

After completing studies at Napa Valley Community College he was looking for a school where he could resume his athletic and academic careers. College basketball’s informal recruiting network took over, with UMFK women’s soccer coach Lucas Levesque making a contact that led Smith and Bird to become aware of each other.

“I had stopped playing basketball for school for a couple years and all of a sudden I got a phone call from a junior college I went to about a school in Fort Kent, Maine, where I could go,” said Smith, a senior nursing major. “Before I could even look up what Fort Kent, Maine, was all about I just packed my bags and showed up on the doorstep of coach Bird.”

Californians like Smith are not uncommon on UMFK’s athletic teams, as the Golden State has become fertile recruiting ground for the Bengals.

Eleven of the school’s 13 women’s volleyball players are from California, with the other two from Hawaii. Three UMFK women’s basketball players are from California compared with one from Maine.

“I usually take one week-long recruiting trip to California around a sophomore showcase out there for the junior colleges,” said Bird, a Lee Academy graduate now in his third year at UMFK. “There are so many junior colleges out there, a hundred schools with 12 guys on each roster. There are so many players to choose from.

“I’d eventually like to branch out someday, but California has been successful so it’s hard not to go back.”

School officials say among the attractions for out-of-state and international students is UMFK’s relatively low cost.

Ashby said annual tuition is approximately $10,000 with room and board another $7,500, and as a USCAA Division I school UMFK can offer athletic scholarships — though in UMFK’s case those grants are modest.

Bird said he has about $20,000 available for men’s basketball scholarships, a number that when divided among a typical 12-player roster is used up quickly.

“UMFK has little to no additional financial aid other than academic merit scholarships and what we may be able to offer athletically,” said Bird. “So while it seems we are at a great advantage because we can offer athletic scholarships, in essence other schools we are competing with in the state are able to give other types of financial aid that far outweigh what we can do as far as an athletic scholarship.”

Bird has yet to do a lot of recruiting in Maine, in part a concession to the challenge of attracting in-state student-athletes to the northernmost campus in the University of Maine system.

“I know before I started (coaching) I had only been here once in my life and that was for tennis in high school,” he said. “I never would have thought about going to Fort Kent for a day trip.

“We can sell Fort Kent and what it’s got to the kids we recruit out of state where Maine kids might have a preconceived notion about it.”

Culture club

McCloskey and Smith say the diversity of backgrounds on the men’s basketball team adds a welcomed cultural component to their college experiences. Other Bengals hail from Greece, England, Montenegro and The Bronx, New York.

“Learning about all my teammates’ different cultures has definitely been eye-opening,” said McCloskey. “I’ve never really moved much outside Maine for any other reason except basketball but now I have every intention of going out and exploring other places like California and hopefully getting to Europe some day.

“Their lives interest me so much. I hope my life interests them.”

Smith says his world view similarly has been broadened.

“Even with the guys from Maine that were here last year, I’d learn about how they speak, the phrases they used and the places they’d go,” he said. “And getting to be around their families when I couldn’t be around my family, that was nice.

“It’s been nice to learn about things outside Fairfield, California.”

Other team members include Benson Arogbo of Nottingham, England, Travis Harlin Jr. of Long Beach, California, Bobby Syvanthong of Richmond, California, Fred Sanchez of The Bronx, Will White of Sacramento, California, Konstantinos Koustas of Rhodes, Greece and Nikola Vukosavovic of Bar, Montenegro.

What links this eclectic UMFK men’s basketball squad most is the shared pursuit of a championship.

A rigorous offseason followed by a schedule that began with nine October exhibition games in Canada and a stunning upset of the NCAA Division I University of Maine — an exhibition game for the Black Bears — has generated high expectations.

“Who doesn’t want to win a championship?” said Smith. “When you can go to a practice or a game and look at your teammates and feel like you can actually accomplish it, it makes you want it that much more.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...