Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Joe D'Antonio prepares to present members of the University of Maine football team with the conference championship trophy after the Black Bears beat Elon 27-26 on Saturday at Alfond Stadium in Orono. Credit: Courtesy of Peter Buehner

The University of Maine football team was dealt a tragic blow before the season even began, on July 24, when freshman defensive back Darius Minor collapsed and died of a heart condition during a workout on Morse Field.

The team dedicated the season to Minor and took his No. 39 jersey to road games.

Senior co-captain Drew Belcher said Minor’s death affected the team in positive ways.

“[It] brought everyone closer together and put everything into perspective. We know he’s looking down on us and helping us,” Belcher said.

The incredibly resilient Black Bears, picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association, defied the odds by winning the conference title and earning a first-round bye in the 24-team Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

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UMaine (8-3 overall, 7-1 CAA) hosts the winner of the Jacksonville State (Alabama)-East Tennessee State game at noon Saturday, Dec. 1.

UMaine endured a difficult schedule, one that included seven road games, including three in a row and five in a six-game span. The Black Bears played only four home games.

Starting quarterback Chris Ferguson missed two games and parts of three others due to a recurring right shoulder injury.

The season began with a 35-7 victory over New Hampshire, snapping an eight-game losing streak at the hands of the Black Bears’ archrival. UMaine then overcame a 21-point deficit to notch a 31-28 road win over Football Bowl Subdivision team Western Kentucky.

UMaine graduate student strong safety Jeffrey DeVaughn said there was a vibe in the locker room before the New Hampshire game that he had never experienced before at UMaine.

“Everyone was dancing and yelling. When we beat UNH and came from 21 down at Western Kentucky, we showed we were capable of doing a lot of great things if we kept our heads on straight and stayed healthy,” the co-captain said.

DeVaughn said Kenny Doak’s two dramatic, game-winning field goals and Jordan Swann’s block of Western Kentucky’s potential game-tying field goal were evidence that “Darius [Minor] has been with us all season and will be for the next four years.”

Senior linebacker Sterling Sheffield said the Black Bears, always underdogs, felt they had a lot to prove and were highly motivated.

“Everybody here has a chip on their shoulders. Everyone was underrecruited. We all got overlooked. We were told we weren’t fast enough or strong enough or smart enough or we didn’t get good enough grades,” Sheffield said.

On Monday he was named one of 25 finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award given to the best defensive player in the FCS.

Belcher said that even prior to the start of the season, he sensed that this UMaine team was special.

“We knew we had a good team. We had a lot of talent coming back and we’re a very hardworking team. We’re all accountable to each other,” he said.

“There was a different culture this year. Everything was changing. We were more experienced and everything came together,” Ferguson said.

The Black Bears also went 3-0 in November, reversing a losing trend (1-5) during the previous two seasons. And two of the victories came against teams ranked higher than Maine in the FCS polls: Towson (35-28) and Elon last Saturday (27-26).

UMaine also demonstrated the ability to win close games, going 5-1 this season in contests decided by seven points or fewer.

Head coach Joe Harasymiak, whose team was beaten by Stony Brook on a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the 2017 season, said UMaine has learned how to win.

“We had the experience factor this season, and guys made big plays that got us over the hump,” he said.

Saturday’s victory epitomized UMaine’s penchant for making big plays. The Black Bears overcame the loss of Ferguson (shoulder injury) to win behind a league- and school-record two kickoff returns for touchdowns by junior wide receiver Earnest Edwards and several clutch defensive plays.

The effort was capped by Sheffield hitting Elon quarterback Daniel Thompson’s arm to make his pass float harmlessly to the turf on fourth down at the UMaine 42-yard line with 1:04 remaining.

“Maine is one of the few teams left that I don’t want to play,” said Towson coach Rob Ambrose, whose team joins UMaine among six CAA teams to earn playoff berths. “They are a talented team, and they play real hard.”

“They have had a fantastic year,” Elon coach Curt Cignetti said. “They’re disciplined, they’re salty on defense and they’re multidimensional on offense.”

Harasymiak and his coaching staff had to rebuild the offensive line after losing three multiyear starters, but UMaine did have a veteran defensive corps returning.

UMaine’s defense ranks fourth among the 124 FCS teams in total defense, allowing 278.8 yards per game. The Black Bears are second in rushing defense (73.4 ypg) and tied for second in sacks (3.64 per game). They are 11th in third-down defense (29.8 percent).

Harasymiak, one of 15 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award given to the FCS Coach of the Year, said the success of the team begins with recruiting.

“You have to have good players to win,” Harasymiak said. “We’ve done a real good job building this team. That’s where it starts.

“And then the culture has changed. It’s all about accountability and belief,” he added.