Lee Academy grad guiding UMFK men’s basketball on path to success|
After the University of Maine-Fort Kent’s big 80-75 upset win over Division I University of Maine on Nov. 5, the Bengals are no longer playing in Maine basketball obscurity.
UMFK pulled off one of the school’s biggest victories behind 6-foot-7 senior Joel McCluskey, a transfer from UMaine-Farmington, along with six teammates from California, two from New York and one from Arizona. The team also has a player from Montenegro and another from England.
Young third-year head coach Tom Bird, a former player at Lee Academy, is recruiting some talented players to come to Fort Kent, which is at the top of our state and 186 miles from Bangor.
Six of Bird’s players are junior college transfers: One sophomore, four juniors and one senior.
UMFK plays in the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, which is made up of 81 small colleges, community colleges and junior colleges from Washington state to Maine. The league is not affiliated with the NCAA and the level of play is comparable to the NAIA.
The Bengals play in the USCAA’s Division I, which includes 25 teams, and there are 56 teams in Division II.
There are 11 divisions of college basketball in the nation and USCAA Division I is ranked seventh.
One of the biggest problems for UMFK athletic teams is to get a competitive home schedule because of the long distance opponents have to travel. So, UMFK travels many miles in a van to get an adequate, competitive schedule.
This year, the Bengals are going to play colleges in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, and in St. John, New Brunswick.
Few college basketball teams can match their miles for travel as they have 27 road games this season and just five at home. UMFK does have one short road trip when it visits UM-Presque Isle , a USCAA Div. II program, for a game. Its other “short” trips are to Orono and Bangor.
But they have been successful in men’s basketball while playing in several different levels of college competition over the years.
Bird has been able to recruit outstanding athletes to make the long trek from across the country and the world to UMFK’s beautiful campus in the St. John Valley. The USCAA does allow its Division I teams to have some funds for scholarships.
Bird’s teams have improved each season since he started three seasons ago and it looks like this year will be no different. His team won 10 games in his first season and 20 games last year. They are off to a 3-1 start this season.
I remember Bird as a player when I officiated some of his games at Lee Academy and it’s refreshing to see a Maine kid returning to our state and making a positive contribution.
Bird went on to graduate from Thomas College in Waterville and then spent one year as chief of video for the University of Florida women’s team and one year as the director of basketball operations for the North Dakota State women’s team.
Bird’s UMFK players are certainly very good, as shown in their win over UMaine at the Black Bears’ practice facility, The Pit, where the Black Bears should have enjoyed a huge advantage.
Congratulations to UMFK and their outstanding young coach. They’ll be a team and program to watch this season and several more.
Bob Cimbollek is a retired high school basketball coach and athletic director.