Cole Thomas knows little about the southern migration that sends retirees from Maine away to escape Mother Nature’s winter wrath or pushes younger adults toward the Northeast’s larger cities in search of jobs to match their educational pursuits.

The 6-foot-5 freshman guard from Orlando, Fla., just wants to play college basketball so he’s embarked on a rather rare northern migration — to Husson University in Bangor.

“I knew I was going to go far away for college, and to be honest that really didn’t bother me because I wanted some new experiences and to live in a new place because I had lived in Florida my whole life,” said Thomas.

Thomas is one of approximately 20 Florida natives on Maine small-college men’s basketball rosters this season. They are recruits who might otherwise have had difficulty finding a place to play the sport after high school because Florida has no NCAA Division III athletic programs within its borders.

Recruiting in Florida and other areas of the country such as Texas, California, Colorado and Arizona with few if any Division III schools is becoming more common among coaches from the Division III-heavy Northeast, including Maine.

Thomas College of Waterville numbers eight Florida natives on its roster while Husson has four Floridians and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the University of Southern Maine of Gorham and the University of Maine at Machias each boasts two Florida-born players.

“It’s no secret there are no Division III programs in the state of Florida but there’s a wealth of basketball talent down there,” said Thomas coach Geoff Hensley. “It’s a great opportunity for any basketball program to find some good recruits that can come up and help their team.”

Perhaps best known of the basketball “sunbirds” is Husson senior Raheem Anderson of Miramar, Fla., who recently surpassed 2,000 career points and was the North Atlantic Conference and ECAC Division III player of the year after leading the Eagles to the NCAA Division III tournament last winter.

“Truthfully I think it’s the Raheem effect,” said Husson coach Warren Caruso. “Raheem was really our first guy from Florida who stood out, and I think Raheem’s level of success has brought a greater awareness within our conference about recruiting in Florida.”

Filling a void

Florida has 13 NCAA Division I schools and 13 NCAA Division II programs, all offering athletic scholarships.

But the Sunshine State has no schools in Division III, a nonscholarship level with hotbeds in the Northeast and Midwest.

“There’s a lot of talented high school players down there who want to play at the next level, but a lot won’t earn Division I or Division II scholarships so you have some very good players who might fall through the cracks,” said Hensley.

Thomas flirted with that possibility as he weighed his college options, including one Division II scholarship offer early in his senior year of high school that he turned down.

“As the season progressed I really thought I would pick up more Division II offers and there was a lot of interest, but as the clock started ticking and more scholarships were given out, I didn’t honestly put up the numbers I needed to my senior year to get a lot of attention from Division II schools,” he said.

“After the season I started thinking about what I wanted to do for my career, and it was a long process but it came down to that I wanted to study audio engineering.”

That eventually led Thomas, who was aided by an Orlando basketball enthusiast who sent out basketball-related information about him to Division III schools around the country, to Husson’s New England School of Communications.

“A big thing for me was that coach Caruso visited me in my home and met my family and talked to me about me contributing to the team as a first-year player,” Thomas said. “I think if I had really tried to go the Division II route there might have been a year when I wouldn’t see the floor, but I wanted to go to a place where I could play and contribute all four years.”

The northern climate that drives many Mainers south is not often a deterrent for Florida teens looking to extend their basketball careers.

“It kind of surprises me because I feel like a lot of kids wouldn’t want to go to the cold, especially when you come from Florida,” said Thomas. “But in the end kids just want a place to play and that’s really where I was.”

The right roster mix

For Division III coaches, recruiting is both high-tech and old school.

“Technology has made recruiting a lot more accessible where players down in Florida can create highlight tapes or post game films online so college coaches around the country like myself can see them,” said Hensley. “All I have to do is come into my office, go online and I can see a kid play whether he’s from Maine or Florida.”

That’s typically followed by more traditional recruiting work such as contacting personal connections and scouting players at AAU tournaments or recruiting showcases.

“When you play at the level of competition the Florida kids play now on a nightly basis, they’re good but they may not stand out,” said Caruso. “We try to look at it in the context of where would they be if they played in Maine and almost every time when we come back to it the guys we’re looking at probably would have been first- or second-team all-state players in Maine.”

The aim of recruiting is to develop a successful program, blending players with complementary skills and students from diverse backgrounds into a cohesive team capable of achieving unified success.

“At the end of the day we’d like our roster to be representative of the student body at the university,” said Caruso. “We generally look to identify the top three to five student-athletes in Maine that we think we can recruit and would have an interest in coming to Husson University.

“From there we look beyond our borders, and our goal every year is to bring in at least one player at every position. We’re very conscious of recruiting the best players in the state first and then building on that recruiting opportunities outside the state.”

The need to recruit outside Maine stems in part from the competition for the state’s top talent.

“With 11 Division III schools in Maine, we’re sharing the talent within the state,” said Caruso. “So we’ve looked at the opportunity to go outside the region to help facilitate the goal of playing at the highest level possible.”

And if a Florida connection is part of that equation, coaches and players alike generally are fine with that.

“Everyone in Florida thinks when they’re a freshman or sophomore that they’re going Division I,” said Thomas. “Then when they’re a junior they think they’re going Division II.

“By the time they’re a senior they’re just trying to find a place to play basketball.”

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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...