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November 17. 2013 7:07PM

Allen Lessels' UNH Notebook: Maine is the football focus now

THEY RALLIED after a tough start to the season to make this Saturday's game against bitter rival Maine at Cowell Stadium mean something in the big picture.

The next challenge for the University of New Hampshire football team is to knock off the Black Bears and see if they can extend the 2013 campaign and play a game or two — or more — after Thanksgiving.

The Wildcats have qualified for the FCS tournament each of the last nine seasons, which is a longer run than anyone else in the country, and when they lost three of their first four games this season they put the playoff streak in serious jeopardy.

But UNH responded and has won five of its last six games — topped off by Saturday's 37-20 win at Albany — and is on the brink of the playoffs once again.

The Wildcats were ranked No. 23 in the country last week and the Albany win pushed their record to 6-4 overall and 5-2 in the Colonial Athletic Association.

There is no guarantee that coach Sean McDonnell's team will receive an invitation to the tournament if it gets to 7-4 overall, but the chances appear to be at least decent.

Those chances improved a bit on Saturday when CAA rivals Delaware, James Madison and William & Mary all lost.

Only Maine (7-0) and Towson (5-2) have better league records than UNH.

Delaware and William & Mary each are 7-4 and 5-3 with a game remaining (teams were allowed to play 12 games this season, but UNH did not).

It seems likely that UNH, if it can get past Maine, has a good shot of making the playoffs for a 10th straight season.

The school is putting in a bid today for a home game and, if the Wildcats get in, they conceivably could play a first-round game at Cowell Stadium on Nov. 30.

McDonnell wasn't interested in talking about any of that on Sunday afternoon.

"We have to win the game if we have any dreams of going on so let's just worry about playing the game and winning the game," he said.

It's a tough assignment.

Maine's only loss this season was a 35-21 setback at Northwestern of the FBS in the fourth game of the season. The Black Bears have won seven straight CAA games since and clinched the league championship outright with a 41-0 win over Rhode Island on Saturday.

They have the second-best scoring defense in the league at 20.2 points a game. UNH has lowered its average in recent weeks to a sixth-best 23.9.

Maine gives up a second-best 329 yards of offense a game and UNH is ranked eighth at 422.

Senior quarterback Marcus Wasilewski runs the offense and has completed 228 of his 327 passes (69.7 percent) for 23 touchdowns and has been intercepted only six times.

"He's been as efficient as anybody in the league or the country," McDonnell said. "He's made them go."

______

THE men's hockey team, picking up the pace at both ends of the ice, has turned things around in a hurry with five straight wins.

The Wildcats swept No. 18-ranked Northeastern — 3-0 in Boston on Friday and 4-1 in Durham on Saturday — to set up a showdown in Providence.

UNH plays at Providence College on Friday and Saturday nights.

The Friars gave UNH fits last season and, led again by goalie Jon Gillies who is now a sophomore, have been the class of Hockey East thus far this season.

They were ranked No. 5 in the country last week and improved to 9-1-1 overall and 5-1-0 in the league with pair of wins at Vermont, 3-2 and 3-0, over the weekend.

Gillies made 23 saves on Saturday and became Providence's career leader in shutouts with eight, a third of a way into his sophomore season. He has three shutouts this year and his .949 save percentage and 1.59 goals-against average lead Hockey East and put him among the top three in the country.

Junior forward Ross Mauermann leads the offense with 10 goals and eight assists for 18 points and the rest of the attack is balanced and no one else has more than eight points.Conor MacPhee, a 6-foot-2 and 200-pound freshman from Windham, has two goals and two assists.

Providence is outscoring teams by exactly two goals a game: with 3.82 goals for and 1.82 allowed.

UH goalie Casey DeSmith has been on a roll, too. In his last four games, he has stopped all but two of the 99 shots that have reached the net. UNH has outscored opponents in those games, 20-2. The Wildcats also beat Brown, 4-2, in that stretch with senior Jeff Wyer in net.

The Wildcats scored on three of their four power-play chances on Saturday night.

Senior Kevin Goumas (five goals, eight assists for 13 points) and junior defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk (3-10-13) lead UNH in scoring, and senior forward Nick Sorkin is tops in goals (7-4-11).

UNH went 1-4-1 against Providence last season. The Friars won two of the regular-season games, 6-5 in Durham and 1-0 in Providence, and the teams also played to a 3-3 tie in Providence.

The Wildcats went to Providence for the Hockey East quarterfinals and won the second game of the series, 4-1. But they lost the first and third, 3-2 each time.

______

THE volleyball team clinched the America East regular season title and top seed for the tournament with a 3-2 win over Albany on Friday night and then beat Binghamton, 3-2, on Sunday.

UNH is 18-12 overall and 12-2 in the league and will host the tournament this weekend at Lundholm Gymnasium. The Wildcats play No. 4 Stony Brook (16-16, 9-5) in one semifinal on Friday at 7 p.m. No. 2 UMBC (18-11, 9-5) and No. 3 Albany (9-18, 9-5) play in the first semi at 4.

The winners meet for the tournament title at 4 on Saturday.

alessels@unionleader.com


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