Usually throughout January, the attention of Maine sports fans is focused on the New England Patriots, and rightfully so.
The Patriots have been playing meaningful games in January and February for a generation, and often times, other local teams get lost in the shuffle.
Now, here we are in the final month of January, and the Patriots’ season has come to an end. And we as sports fans can shift our attention to other hot topics and teams in sports that deserve our attention.
The University of Maine women’s basketball team is once again in the thick of the America East race. Boston Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training on Feb. 18. High school basketball tournament action kicks off two weeks from now. And the UMaine hockey team is fighting to work its way out of the Hockey East cellar.
Let’s start with the UMaine women. Coach Richard Barron’s club won its 15th consecutive game at the Cross Insurance Center last night, defeating Hartford 61-43 behind junior guard Sigi Koizar.
Barron has done a remarkable job turning this program around since Cindy Blodgett was relieved of her coaching duties in the spring of 2011. The Black Bears shared the conference regular-season championship with Albany last season, but were knocked off by Hartford in the conference semifinals. UMaine has defeated two Power Five schools this season in Clemson of the ACC and LSU of the SEC, which includes a 33-point romp over the Tigers in Bangor in December.
This team is certainly worth your attention. Maine is currently 6-1 in conference play heading into Saturday’s road contest at Binghamton, and sits one game behind conference leader Albany, with the Great Danes scheduled to come to Bangor on Feb. 14.
If things fall into place for the Black Bears, they’ll have a chance to host the conference championship game at the Cross Center. Not only would that leave a huge mark on the program, but on the city from an economical standpoint.
On the contrary, the UMaine hockey team will be searching for its first road victory this season when the Bears hit the road to take on UMass.
Maine has struggled on the road since coach Red Gendron took over in the fall of 2013, as the Black Bears have only five true road victories over the last two and a half seasons.
Fortunately, Maine will be taking on a UMass team that has had its own struggles, as the Minutemen sit in 11th place in Hockey East, only two points ahead of 12th-place Maine. The Black Bears were dominated by Boston University in a home-and-home sweep by the rival Terriers last weekend, and I’ve got a feeling Gendron’s team is due for a road victory.
As I touched on a few weeks ago, the UMaine hockey team is worthy of your attention as it continues to rebuild. While the Bears have a mere 5-15-16 record, they’ve shown they can compete with top teams in ties with powerhouses North Dakota and Quinnipiac. But as evidenced in the Quinnipiac game, in which the Bobcats erased a 3-1 third-period deficit, Maine needs to learn to finish those games, especially at home.
Hopefully, the Black Bears can find a way to get a win or two at UMass and get some confidence back heading into their next home series against defending national champion Providence.
While we’ve certainly been spoiled with some teases of early-spring like weather over the course of this week, the Red Sox reporting to Spring Training and high school basketball tournament action on the horizon has to invoke signs of warmer weather.
Tourney 2016 will usher in a new era with the state’s new five-class format, which will equal more games at the Augusta Civic Center. We may also see some old rivalries renewed at the Cross Insurance Center, such as Houlton and Presque Isle in Class B and Schenck and Stearns in Class C. The Brewer and Hampden boys will tango next weekend in a highly anticipated showdown for the No. 1 seed in Class A. The game has already sold out, according to Brewer officials.
Tourney week tends to breeze by like a comet, especially in this line of work where you’re running back and forth in between sessions. But which players and teams will create 2016’s everlasting memories? We’ll have to wait and see!
There are a lot of high expectations surrounding the Red Sox this year. John Farrell finally has an ace again in David Price, and with this being franchise icon David Ortiz’s final season before he retires, the Sox are going to want to send Big Papi out on top.
One thing to keep an eye on in spring training is the move of Hanley Ramirez to first base. It was clear last year that he had trouble adjusting to the outfield, and it appears he will take over the DH role in 2017 once Ortiz retires.
The other thing I’ll be keeping an eye on is the bullpen, in particular Koji Uehara and Craig Kimbrel, expected to give the Sox a lethal 8th-9th inning punch. Uehara should excel in his new setup role and Kimbrel is a good, young closer who Farrell can count on to protect a one-run lead.
In spite of the Patriots losing an AFC Championship they probably should have won, there’s a lot to look forward to around here in the coming weeks!