ORONO, Maine — While she was being recruited by the University of Maine, former Lawrence High School star Cindy Blodgett spent hours getting to know then-Black Bears coach Joanne Palombo McCallie.
McCallie had a bold vision of taking UMaine women’s basketball to new heights, and she convinced Blodgett she could be an integral part of the plan.
The recruiting process taught both women a lot about their shared passion for basketball — and their commitment to winning.
“I wouldn’t have gone to Maine had she not been here,” said Blodgett, who Sunday afternoon meets her former coach when her Black Bears take on McCallie’s eighth-ranked Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.
“It’s a relationship that I really valued, even when I was 18,” Blodgett said. “Coach Palombo, from very early on, I felt like I could trust her.”
Blodgett reciprocated, helping transform UMaine into a conference and regional power from 1994 to 1998. UMaine made four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and won four straight league titles.
“I think of all the great games we had in Alfond Arena,” said McCallie, who is in her second season at Duke after seven years at Michigan State. “I remember the Alabama game [a 75-73 win in 1995]. She was just a freshman, but she had so much confidence.”
Sunday will mark the first time McCallie has coached against a former player turned head coach.
“It is very cool,” said McCallie, who also coached Navy assistant coach Julie Veilleux of Augusta.
With Sunday’s game a huge mismatch, at least on paper, McCallie isn’t convinced she’s going to enjoy the game itself.
“I don’t think I’ll like the experience coaching against Maine,” McCallie said. “Seeing each other and catching up is wonderful; playing against each other is not so nice.”
Blodgett is grateful to McCallie, who in June was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, for scheduling the Bears this season and agreeing to visit Orono sometime in the next two seasons.
“I looked at it more as she really needed to come back to Maine,” Blodgett said. “The people of the state of Maine need an opportunity to really roll out the red carpet for her and appreciate what she did for this program.”
Blodgett speaks with McCallie occasionally via phone or text messages, picking her brain about the challenges of coaching and recruiting at the Division I level. The most tangible evidence of McCallie’s influence on Blodgett the coach is in their shared defensive philosophy.
While both teach a foundation of man-to-man fundamentals, Blodgett employs the 1-2-2 matchup zone familiar to fans of McCallie’s UMaine teams.
McCallie was on Blodgett’s list of references when she applied for the UMaine position.
The two have crossed paths during the summers, watching potential recruits at AAU tournaments.
“She’s got so much knowledge as far as recruiting,” Blodgett said.
Blodgett already has gained a reputation as a taskmaster who requires maximum effort and commitment from her players. In that respect, she also is following McCallie’s lead.
“I never played for a coach that was more demanding, and demanding with a purpose, so we would be prepared for our opponents,” Blodgett said. “She was extremely organized.”
During her playing days, Blodgett saved the practice planners handed out by McCallie. Now, she is putting parts of those plans into action.
Blodgett said the emphasis on individual skill work is something she enjoyed as a player and continues to utilize.
She knows she is fortunate to have McCallie as a resource.
“It’s comforting knowing that she’s a phone call away,” Blodgett said. “She’ll always be willing to help.”
And with UMaine still trying to re-establish itself, there are likely to be more trying times ahead before Blodgett gets the Bears back where they want to be — at the top of America East.
“I just keep telling her to be patient. It’s going to take time,” McCallie said. “I am so proud of Cindy. I understand what she is up against. She has to rebuild the program and that is not easy at all.”
This weekend, a group of more than 20 boosters and fans, along with numerous parents, are making the trip to Duke. McCallie is eagerly awaiting their arrival.
“I am so excited to see all the fans,” McCallie said. “I’ll see them at the hotel on Saturday. It’ll be neat.”