ORONO, Maine — Going through adversity has a way of bringing teams together.
That was the case for the University of Maine women’s basketball team, which is gearing up for Sunday’s season opener at eighth-ranked Duke.
Second-year head coach Cindy Blodgett and the Black Bears are looking ahead with optimism after going through a transition season during 2007-08. This fall, six veterans and four newcomers have come together with a sense of enthusiasm and commitment as they try to build off a disappointing 7-23 season.
“I think they understand their strengths and their weaknesses,” Blodgett said of the returning players. “This team knows what they’re good at and they’re working to improve those areas.”
Blodgett believes the team motto of “Do Your Job,” emphasizes accountability and will help the Bears progress.
With one graduate and six other players gone for various reasons, those who remain have embraced the plan Blodgett and her staff have put in place to work toward eventually winning championships.
This season, there are no team captains.
“This group doesn’t need titles,” Blodgett said. “They lead through example, by their actions.”
Junior Brittany Boser, who was a tri-captain last season, said the new approach is good.
“I think that the reason that this works so well with this team is everyone is so respectful of each other,” Boser said.
“We’re all out there together as one team and that’s how we see it,” said Colleen Kilmurray, the only senior on the squad. “Whenever someone has something to say, we all listen.”
The team got a head start on its chemistry by spending the summer in Orono, playing pickup games and hanging out. The players hope that will translate into more success on the court this season.
UMaine is building around a veteran nucleus that accounted for most of its offense last season. Key returnees include junior forward Amanda Tewksbury, forwards Boser and Kilmurray, and junior point guard Kristin Baker of Bingham, who made 13 starts. Sophomore Tanna Ross of Newburgh saw quality minutes.
Tewksbury and Kilmurray tied for the team lead at 9.1 points per game. Kilmurray was the top rebounder (5.0 rpg), while Tewksbury (4.5 rpg) was tied for second in that category.
The lefthanded Tewksbury, at 5-foot-9, can play either guard or small forward and is an aggressive rebounder.
“Tewks is that consistent player for us,” Blodgett said. “She needs to bring a certain level of toughness to the defensive end.”
Kilmurray (6-0), blends a physical inside presence with the ability to make 3-pointers.
“She keeps people off-balance,” Blodgett said. “She does all the little things that coaches really recognize and appreciate.”
Boser (6-0) is trying to beef up her post game (4.5 rpg) to complement her shooting touch from the perimeter.
“She has a great midrange game,” Blodgett said, “and she has gotten really comfortable on the block.”
The 5-5 Baker provides energy and intensity. She will be expected to run the offense efficiently and play gritty defense.
“I really expect her to be our emotional leader,” Blodgett said. “I think she gained a great deal of confidence based on the minutes she earned last year.”
Ross, a 5-11 swing player, is coming off postseason knee surgery. She creates matchup problems and can shoot the 3 or post up down low.
“Tanna provides some versatility for us,” Blodgett said. “Tanna has a passion to play. She keeps people off balance.”
Junior forward Katia Bratishko (6-0) appeared in 17 games last season and lends a physical presence.
“She has sort of become our enforcer,” Blodgett said. “She is all energy and she goes after every single rebound.”
Each of the four newcomers is expected to contribute this season, although point guard Brittany Williams (hamstring) and swing player Samantha Wheeler (plantar fasciitis) have battled preseason injuries.
Samantha Baranowski, a 6-3 center, is a quick study who possesses a variety of post moves. Her development could open up the Bears’ undersized veteran post players.
“She does not play like a freshman,” Blodgett said. “She’s a hard worker.”
Jasmine Rush is a 5-9 combination guard who likes to score but who can back up Baker. Williams (5-7) is a quick point guard who is committed to the defensive end, while Wheeler is an athletic 6-footer who can play forward or guard.
Depth could be a concern for UMaine, especially if injuries continue to crop up. Blodgett sees that as a potential positive.
“The players get a ton of repetitions,” she said. “Everyone has to practice hard and it forces people to play more than one position.”
Blodgett is stressing the positives in the hope this group will develop the confidence and consistency necessary to make big strides this season.
“Our returning players are at a different point in their careers,” she said. “They understand how important Maine tradition is and they want an America East championship.”