Scott Atherley has been part of the University of Maine soccer program for 36 seasons, first as a player and then as a coach. He is in his 21st year guiding the women’s program.
There have been a lot of fond memories but topping the list is Wednesday’s announcement that the Harold Alfond Foundation is going to provide the athletic program with a $90 million gift designated primarily to upgrade its facilities.
“[Wednesday] was a very special day. The impact of the Alfond gift will transform athletics at the University of Maine,” Atherley said. “The generosity of the Harold Alfond Foundation is just incredible.”
Softball coach Mike Coutts called the news jaw-dropping.
“It is incredible to think of the impact it is going to have on so many people across the state, not just on the student-athletes at the University of Maine,” Coutts said.
Atherley, Coutts and their programs will be two of the primary beneficiaries of the gift, along with head coach Nick Charlton and the football program. The FieldTurf surface on Morse Field in Alfond Stadium is 13 years old and is in desperate need of replacement.
UMaine athletics director Ken Ralph said gender equity is at the top of the priority list, along with the football surface.
The soccer team has to play on the outfield of the baseball field, Mahaney Diamond, and doesn’t have its own field. Ralph called that dynamic embarrassing.
Ralph also would like to replace the dirt infield and grass outfield on Kessock Field, the home of the Black Bears softball program, with a synthetic surface and add lights to the facility.
Ralph said the gift will positively impact all of UMaine’s 17 varsity sports.
“Any enhancement to our facilities, regardless of the facility, is a win for all of our programs,” Atherley said. “It was tremendously uplifting news and the timing couldn’t be better given the last six to seven months [due to the COVID-19 pandemic].
Coutts said the development provides a lot of hope throughout the department.
“This is huge for us. The guys are really excited,” Charlton said. “It is going to be very impactful.”
Ralph indicated that he would also like to upgrade the field hockey facility and put a new track in another location, instead of having it circle the football field like it does now.
In addition, Ralph would like to renovate 44-year-old Alfond Arena, where the men’s and women’s hockey teams play. He also is a proponent of playing basketball at an on-campus facility.
The basketball teams play their games at the seven-year-old Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, but they practice in the 87-year-old Memorial Gym on campus. The facility, known affectionately as “The Pit,” can hold only 1,300 fans.
The Cross Insurance Center can accommodate approximately 5,800 for basketball.
UMaine coaches said facilities play a pivotal role in recruiting as student-athletes place a premium on the quality of the place they will call home for four years.
Coutts said Kessock Field in its present configuration is detrimental to the softball program’s recruiting efforts.
“The number one reason we lose kids to other schools is our facility,” Coutts said. “Recruits have told us, flat out, that they aren’t coming to our school because of our facility.”
Coutts said they won’t take recruits to visit the field unless they ask to see it.
Field hockey coach Josette Babineau said a lot of players they recruit are already playing in top-notch facilities.
“When they are looking at schools, they are evaluating the facilities as well as the academics,” Babineau said.
She said UMaine’s turf field is in a beautiful location within the sports complex but doesn’t have the feel of a self-contained facility. It includes an artificial turf field with team benches, a small press box and limited seating.
“If they could make the facility more complete and make it look nicer with a few upgrades, we could improve our national ranking and move to the top of our conference,” said Babineau, whose team has been ranked in the top 20 nationally several times but has yet to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
The coaches echoed Ralph’s sentiment that quality facilities will benefit intramural programs, local high school and club teams and attract students, not just athletes, to their institution.
Atherley credited Ralph and senior associate athletic director for development Seth Woodcock for their vision and the work they have put in cultivating a plan and working with the Alfond Foundation to make it a reality.
“Some of the presentations I saw were so impressive. It reflected a lot of thought and detail,” Atherley said.
The coaches also said the philanthropy of the late Harold Alfond and his foundation, which included the launching of the hockey program in the new Alfond Arena in 1977, has been a game-changer.
“It’s phenomenal when you really think about it,” Coutts said.