University of Maine at Fort Kent men's basketball representatives including (from left) Troy Williams, Bobby Syvanthong, coach Tom Bird, Anthony Knight and Jarid Walton were honored as the United States Collegiate Athletic Association award banquet last February. Bird hopes a beefed-up schedule will help the Bengals take the final step to winning a national championship. Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine at Fort Kent Athletics

The University of Maine at Fort Kent men’s basketball team has been on the brink of a national championship each of the last two years.

The Bengals reached the U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association’s semifinals in both 2016 and 2017 before having their season ended, in 2016 in double overtime and last winter by a five-point margin.

Fifth-year coach Tom Bird hopes a hardened schedule and a productive recruiting class will help UMFK take the final steps to a national title.

UMFK’s 2018-2019 non-conference schedule is particularly notable for its challenges, with two NCAA Division I opponents (Liberty University of Lynchburg, Virginia, and UMass Lowell). It also includes two NCAA Division II foes (Florida schools Eckerd College and Embry Riddle University), as well as three nationally ranked NAIA programs (Life University of Marietta, Georgia; Stillman College of Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and St. Thomas University of Miami Gardens, Florida.

“We’ve kind of taken the motto here that we will play anyone, anytime, anywhere,” Bird said.

Games against NCAA Division I programs are nothing new for the Bengals. Last year UMFK traveled to America East power Vermont and dropped a 90-54 decision in a game for which the team received a reported guarantee of $3,000 to help offset program expenses.

Two years ago, the Bengals upended the University of Maine 80-75 in a Nov. 5 game at Memorial Gymnasium on the Orono campus that UMaine labeled a preseason contest while UMFK applied it to its regular-season record.

UMFK, 23-9 each of the last two years, plays Nov. 8 at Liberty and on Dec. 7 travels to UMass Lowell.

“Every year, throughout the year, I send a ton of emails to DI’s asking if they are looking for any non-DI games,” Bird said. “I stopped putting guarantee games in the email because we just want to play them.

“Being paid to go play those games is an added bonus, and my goal each year is to try and raise about $10,000 in guarantees. That allows us to be able to take two plane trips this year and it’s really one of the great recruiting tools I have because most small colleges are not doing some of the things we are.”

UMFK’s other five nonconference games against NCAA Division II and NAIA opponents will come during a single trip to Georgia and Florida from Nov. 17-24.

“We know those two (Division I) games and the Florida trip where we will face some DII’s and top NAIA teams will be an incredible challenge for us, but that’s what we play for,” Bird said. “We won’t go into any of these games thinking we’re going to get killed. I know our guys will come in with the mindset that they belong on the biggest stage.”

The ambitious nonconference slate leaves UMFK with only six home games, beginning with a Dec. 4 date against instate rival UMaine-Machias, as well as road games at Unity College, Maine Maritime Academy of Castine, UMaine-Machias and UMaine-Presque Isle.

“This is the most difficult schedule we have ever put together,” Bird said. “Two NCAA DI’s, two DII’s and some nationally ranked NAIA teams will be a huge challenge for us but should have us more than ready for the national tournament.”

UMFK will welcome five new players to its roster this fall, including former Piscataquis of Guilford guard Bryce Gilbert. Gilbert, a third-team Bangor Daily News All-Maine honoree as a senior, averaged 27.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.0 steals last winter while shooting 59 percent from the floor and becoming his school’s career scoring leader.

“We are excited to land one of the best young players in the state,” Bird said. “We look forward to having Bryce join us as a freshman, we see him as being a player we can build around for the future.”

Others joining the roster include brothers Mahlik and Jeremy Franklin of Enosberg, Vermont. Mahlik Franklin led his high school team to a state championship last winter while older brother Jeremy Franklin is a transfer from Vermont Technical College who took the last two years off to serve a military deployment overseas.

The Bengals also add two California junior college transfers in Chance Cole of Pierce College in Woodland Hills and Stephen Williams of Galivan College in Gilroy.

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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...