When members of the Husson University football team arise Saturday, they’ll treat the morning just like another game day at home — even though the Eagles won’t be playing at home.
The players, coaches and support staff will board buses at One College Circle at 8:15 a.m. bound for Biddeford and the program’s first game against an instate opponent, the University of New England.
The Eagles should arrive back on campus at a reasonable hour Saturday evening — something previously unheard of for a Husson football road trip.
Husson’s matchup against the first-year varsity Nor’easters is set for 1 p.m. on the blue artificial turf at UNE’s Blue Storm Stadium.
“We’ll practice here on Friday, and we usually don’t practice on Friday when we’re on the road, so that would be the first difference,” Husson coach Gabby Price said of changes in the team’s road-trip routine with the relatively short 150-mile excursion to York County. “On Saturday, we’re going to do everything the same as we would for a home game, except get on the bus.”
UNE, which played a full prevarsity schedule in 2017 — including a game in Bangor against Husson’s subvarsity — is the first Maine program to join the NCAA Division III ranks since Husson did so in 2003.
Price remembers the atmosphere around the Bangor campus when his team played its first home game against Mount Ida Sept. 20, 2003.
“It was a very exciting day for everybody on our campus and the team and the players,” said Price, whose team lost 35-28. “We didn’t have bleachers, so they brought in bleachers. The people here did a tremendous job.
“Other than the loss it was a great, great day.”
UNE coach Mike Lichten, whose team lost at Coast Guard 33-7 in its official debut last Saturday, has experienced a similar buildup in advance of his team’s first home game.
“There’s an energy here in the Biddeford, Saco and Kennebunk area,” Lichten said. “There’s a lot of anticipation and excitement, and I know we’re going to put on a good show for them, and hopefully they’re all happy to have us here.”
Lichten was hired in 2016 to build the UNE football program from the ground up after five years as head coach at Becker College, a Division III program in Massachusetts.
“Not many people get to start something from scratch, and I thought that opportunity and challenge was attractive,” Lichten said.
“The last two years have been a learning experience but at the same time an exciting challenge to put my own flavor and direction into a program that has never had a football culture or expectations before.”
UNE fields a roster of approximately 80 players, with a mix of representation from Maine high school programs as well as from out of state.
“It’s been as long a road as you can imagine,” Lichten said. “We started with no locker rooms, no storage, no field, etc, and here we are about to host a perennial powerhouse in Husson for our first-ever home game.
“The biggest challenge has been just being patient and realizing that it takes time to do things the right way.”
Blue Storm Stadium has a seating capacity of approximately 1,600, and after having a solid fan base accompany the team last Saturday to its game against Coast Guard at New London, Connecticut, UNE anticipates an enthusiastic crowd.
“We’re thrilled to be in a position to be able to play on our own campus,” Lichten said. “A lot of people worked really hard to get us to this point at all levels of our administration, and at all corners of our campus people pulled together to make sure that this is going to go well. Now we need to hold up our end of the bargain and perform well on the field.”
UNE faces a significant challenge against Husson. The two-time defending Eastern Collegiate Football Conference champion Eagles, who scored their first-ever NCAA tournament victory last November, will try to rebound from a season-opening 30-7 nonconference loss at Union College last week.
While this will be the first varsity football meeting between Husson and UNE, it won’t be the last. Both schools will be members of the same conference in the sport next year when Husson joins the Nor’easters in Commonwealth Conference Football.
That will mean annual meetings between the teams.
Games matching the state’s three NCAA Division III football-playing schools that aren’t members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference — which includes Colby, Bates and Bowdoin — also are on track to become more frequent in coming years.
Husson and Maine Maritime Academy of Castine have agreed to a home-and-home series in 2021 and 2022 that may lead to annual meetings.
In addition, UNE and MMA have agreed to home-and-home dates in 2022 and 2023.
“I think it’s exciting,” Lichten said. “I know the kids are going to be passionate about this game, and then both Husson and UNE have signed up to play Maine Maritime going forward in a few years, so we’ll have a nice state-of-Maine rivalry building up over the next five to six years.
“It’s good for football in the state, and all the high school programs can look and see that there is an opportunity to play beyond high school and prepare for that.”
Price also is excited about the steady rise of Division III football in Maine.
“Certainly we love football,” he said, “so anytime there’s a school in Maine that has Maine kids playing football we love it. We think it’s a tremendous thing for Maine football.”
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