Passionate fan bases fuel rivalry between perennial title contenders

This week, ESPN.com is looking at a number of great, under-the-radar college sports rivalries. These rivalries often are overshadowed by their big league brethren -- such as Michigan-Ohio State football or Duke-North Carolina basketball -- but are no less intense. This is a small sampling of some of the nation's best rivalries, regardless of sport and division. If you have an under-the-radar rivalry story you'd like to share, tell us about it here. We'll post a few of the best stories Friday.

What's the recipe for a long and storied rivalry?

Take two talented and evenly matched programs, add passionate fan bases, sprinkle in a few thrilling games, and stir. And it never hurts if the institutions involved are located in the same region or conference.

The recipe has certainly worked well for Hockey East members Maine and New Hampshire, whose relatively young rivalry already can count its share of memorable and meaningful matchups.

"The rivalry always means a lot -- not only in our conference and nationally in college hockey, but to the people of our state," said Maine athletic director Blake James. "Having worked at other universities around the country, and having seen big football and basketball rivalries, I would say Maine-UNH is on the same level as any of the rivalries in college sports."

The schools have been competing in hockey since 1979, but the rivalry really came to a head in 1999 when the Black Bears met UNH in an epic Frozen Four final, besting the Wildcats 3-2 in overtime for their second national championship. That game, coupled with the fact that Maine ended UNH's quest for its first NCAA title, sparked the heated rivalry.

Although Maine's hockey history is relatively recent -- the Black Bears became a Division I team in the 1979-1980 season, though they didn't start challenging for titles until the late coach Shawn Walsh came along -- striking up a rivalry with UNH was a natural move.

"A lot of rivalries are fueled by the fans, and ours has a bit to do with location," James said. "A lot of times, you can have crossovers in families, not only on the ice, but in the stands. Maine and New Hampshire are very similar in their population makeup. A lot of the kids that are on either team have been recruited by the other team; they have played against each other since they started playing hockey, in a lot of cases. That all builds in, but what really puts it over the top is the fan involvement."

While passionate fan bases are key to any good rivalry, the fact that there's something on the line -- whether its at a conference or national level -- every time these teams meet certainly notches up the heat a few degrees.

"The games are special. They're very intense, partly because they are very similar schools," said New Hampshire athletic director Marty Scarano. "Because the states are so small, winning this game gives students, alumni -- even politicians -- bragging rights. It's what makes this rivalry different than at schools in bigger states like Pennsylvania or Texas.

"Hockey is a niche sport. It's provincial. But it's also unbelievably fabulous, in the little states, these intense pockets of fans. Maine and UNH are really symbolic of what is great about hockey."

After New Hampshire lost in the 1999 NCAA championship, the Wildcats greeted Maine with a whiteout at the Whittemore Center the next time the Black Bears were in town. With a sell-out crowd dressed in head-to-toe white and armed with Thunderstix, Durham, N.H., was transformed into one of the most intimidating and hostile road venues.

The "White out the Whit" promo worked; the series is nearly .500 since 1999. Maine leads the series 52-38-5.

"I can't even describe the enthusiasm, the noise level in there," said New Hampshire coach Dick Umile. "The Whittemore Center was fairly new, and both teams were competing for a conference championship, and we have a whiteout -- and we end up winning both games. It was phenomenal. And we have that now every year, it's an event, and that was definitely a special one."

The Black Bears own a fair amount of bragging rights; besides the two national championships, Maine owns five Hockey East titles to New Hampshire's two. Maine students have since dubbed UNH the "University of No Hardware."

"We have two very talented teams -- there are a lot of very good players to come out of this area," explained Umile. "Both programs have been in the NCAA Tournament consecutively for the last 10 years, both have gone to the Frozen Fours quite a few times. What makes [this rivalry] special is the fan support and the level of hockey that is played -- I mean, the games have been terrific. We've been two teams, along with BC and BU, that have been right there nationally, competing for championships."

The '99 championship is hardly the only one to have national repercussions. In 1992, Maine had to defeat UNH in the Hockey East finals to win its first league championship. Since then, the two schools have had to beat each other to win conference regular-season and tournament titles, and they have met again in the NCAA Tournament.

"The excitement [of the rivalry] -- it's what makes college athletics what it is. It's what makes it fun. There's no question it's a playoff atmosphere, whether they come here or we go there," said Umile, a New Hampshire alumnus. "Everything is heightened a little more the week leading up to the big rivalry games. The guys get excited -- if anything, you have to keep them to not be too excited."

Although this border war doesn't stretch back for nearly a century like other rivalries, it clearly has the support to continue for quite some time.

"To the area, it means just as much as [the bigger rivalries]," Umile said. "Obviously we don't get near the same amount that we get with those games, but as far as the seacoast area here, the sellouts are great. And the enthusiasm and support that it gets -- we only get 7,000 to 8,000 at our games -- but if we were to play in the [Hockey East] championship in Boston, and Maine-UNH meet in the tournament, you can be sure we'll bring quite a few fans to Boston, to help fill the place out. And we're talking 18,000 there."

Lauren Reynolds is the editor of ESPNU.com. She can be reached at Lauren.K.Reynolds@espn3.com.