University of Maine at Presque Isle men's basketball coach Dan Kane talks to his team. Credit: Courtesy of University of Maine at Presque Isle

When Dan Kane arrived at the University of Maine at Presque Isle as its new athletic director and men’s basketball coach in June 2017, he faced two big challenges: He had never been an athletic director and he inherited just four players.

The first challenge was largely a matter of learning as much as he could about his new surroundings and the needs of various teams. The second required attracting basketball players to the Aroostook County program on short notice.

“That summer I had to do a lot of recruiting,” Kane said.

Those efforts are paying off five years into his tenure in the Star City. UMPI is now established in one of the Northeast’s well-known small-college conferences and just had its best men’s basketball season since the Owls’ 16-8 finish in 1997.

The latter achievement has earned the 32-year-old Bradford native recognition as the 2022 Maine Men’s Basketball Coaches and Writers Association’s coach of the year.

“It takes a couple of years to build a program, and that’s why we were so successful this year,” Kane said. “We had a lot of returners and upperclassmen who knew our system and what it takes to win in college and they played really well.”

This winter’s team won 13 of its last 16 games to finish 15-10 after advancing to the second round of the North Atlantic Conference tournament with a roster of players ranging from All-Maine first-team senior guard Griffin Guerrette of Presque Isle to first-year guard Charlie Mellick of Australia.

“I will say it’s harder for us to get kids from downstate sometimes because most people usually look south before they look north,” Kane said. “But we’re really dedicated as a state school to provide the student-athlete experience for our local students who are talented enough and want to continue playing.”

While recruiting is a huge part of college basketball success, so is an understanding of the intricacies of the game, and Kane has been a lifelong learner.

During his playing career at Central High School in Corinth, he routinely spent nights after practice scouting future opponents, providing the 2007 graduate a base of knowledge he took with him to college, first for a year at nearby Husson University in Bangor and then to the University of Maine at Farmington, where he was a three-year point guard for former longtime Beavers’ head coach Dick Meader.

Kane planned to teach and coach in high school after graduating from UMF, but when Meader offered him a chance to join his staff while he was student-teaching in the Farmington area, he jumped at the chance. A new career path was defined.

“I just fell in love with college coaching,” he said.

Kane spent four years coaching under Meader at UMF, then one year as an assistant at Connecticut College before returning to Maine to take the reins of his own program.

Kane’s first UMPI team finished 13-14 against a mix of NCAA Division II and U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association smaller-college teams, but the Owls got a boost the following season when they were admitted into the North Atlantic Conference.

Suddenly rivalries with the likes of Husson, Thomas College of Waterville and the University of Maine at Farmington that were played at a fever pitch during the 1980s and 1990s in the Maine Athletic Conference were back. Playing in the NAC helped UMPI teams by re-establishing natural rivalries and vastly reducing travel requirements, including in men’s basketball.

“It went from being on the road 70 percent of the time to having half of our games on the road and half at home,” Kane said. “Now instead of a large number of our games being out of state 19 of our 25 were in-state this year so we missed fewer classes and didn’t have to travel as much.”

UMPI had hovered around .500 the last three years as Kane worked to boost talent and depth on his roster, including a 3-3 record during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season.

And while this season didn’t start well for the Owls, who were 2-6 after an 84-81 loss at Husson on Dec. 2, a roster that included Guerrette, second-team All-Maine and MCBCWA defensive player of the year Dany Harris and NAC co-rookie of the year Gilbert Jean Mendez soon found its rhythm at both ends of the court.

By the end of the season the Owls ranked 23th in NCAA Division III in assists per game, 20th in defensive 3-point percentage and 37th in steals.

“We’ve been very talented the last couple of years but didn’t quite get over the hump until this year and I think that was because of team chemistry,” Kane said. “I’ve never been part of such an unselfish team where we didn’t have anyone jealous of anybody else because of who’s getting the shots or who’s getting the accolades.”

UMPI’s late-season surge included victories over both teams that played in the NAC championship game, Husson and SUNY Poly. The 87-79 homecourt victory over Husson on Feb. 8 marked the Owls’ first win over the Eagles since 1998.

Kane does not see this year’s improvement as a one-and-done thing. All but one player on the current roster is eligible to return next season. Kane and associate head coach Mark Knight are also at work bolstering the next recruiting class.

“I think we’re in a place where we can compete for the NAC championship every year,” he said.

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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...