McCallie praises Blodgett

Posted Dec. 23, 2009, at 8:57 p.m.

Duke University women’s basketball coach and former UMaine women’s coach Joanne P. McCallie feels Cindy Blodgett will restore the Black Bears to prominence but said it will take some time.

Blodgett led McCallie’s Maine teams to four consecutive NCAA Tournament berths but Maine has had four straight losing seasons including two under Blodgett, who followed Ann McInerney.

“It’s going to be a longer time table because it’s two programs away from some of the things we were doing,” said McCallie. “It’s not really fair because some kids left and it was the end of one era when [former coach] Sharon [Versyp] left. So Cindy has two things to work through.

“You’re looking for an eight-year kind of run to make that progress before you’re beating Stanford in the NCAA tournament. But winning the conference can come sooner,” continued McCallie, who left Maine after eight years to take over at Michigan State.

Versyp replaced her and went 98-51 in five seasons.

What ingredients are necessary to revive the program?

“Commitment is important and continuity is important,” said McCallie. “A lack of continuity hurts. She needs to bring in players with grit. And she needs great athletes, too.

“Cindy works so hard. I see her [recruiting] in the summer. Our paths cross a lot. She’s doing it methodically. She’s going to get her breakthrough. She’s going to land some player who may come to Maine underranked and, all of a sudden, she’s pretty good. I’m excited for Cindy.”

McCallie said Blodgett’s Maine team is significantly better than last year’s team.

Men’s hockey preps for tournament

The University of Maine men’s hockey team returns to the Alfond Arena ice on Saturday as the Black Bears begin preparing for the Florida College Classic Dec. 29-30 at Germain Arena in Estero, Fla.

This will be the 10th year of the tournament, which is hosted by the ECHL’s Florida Everblades and Maine and Cornell have been the fixtures.

Maine has won it three times, the last time being in 2007, and has a record of 9-7-2 in the affair.

This year’s tournament features one of its strongest fields as Colorado College (11-4-3) is ranked third in both national polls while Cornell (7-2-2) is No. 4 in both. Maine (9-7-1) has won five in a row and is unbeaten in six games (5-0-1).

Princeton, an NCAA tournament team a year ago, has struggled to a 4-8-1 start but has the 2008-2009 ECAC Hockey League Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Award finalist Zane Kalemba between the pipes. Kalemba, who was 22-10-1 with a 1.82 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage last year, made a career-high 45 saves to beat UMass Lowell 3-2 in his last start on Dec. 12. That snapped Princeton’s six-game losing streak.

“It’s a very strong field this year,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “I’m really excited about it. We would love to get off to a good start and use it as a springboard for the rest of the season. We want to continue to build on our success. It’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to have to play at our very best.”

Maine will practice Saturday night and early Sunday morning before bussing to Boston and flying to Florida. They will practice in Florida on Dec. 28.

Whitehead said strength and conditioning coach Terry O’Neill gave the players a workout regimen to follow during the break.

One of the keys to Maine’s resurgence has been its penalty-killing.

Over the last six games, Maine has killed off 27 of 31 power plays (.871).

“That has made a big difference,” said Whitehead. “It has been a gradual process. We’ve worked on it a lot. We have been blocking more shots and doing a much better job getting in shooting lanes. We’re also doing a much better job clearing rebounds and protecting the back door.”

Another key has been the goaltending of sophomore Scott Darling, who has allowed only one goal in each of his last five starts.

“He has been playing at the top of his game,” said Whitehead.

Maine faces off against Princeton at 4:05 p.m. on Dec. 29 with Cornell and Colorado College playing at 7:35. The Dec. 30 consolation game will be at 4:05 with the title game to follow.

Whitehead said junior center Robby Dee, who missed the last two games with a shoulder injury, has informed him that he’s ready to return to the lineup.

But junior defenseman Mike Banwell (knee) will probably miss the tournament.

Maine will fly home on Dec. 31 and host the University of New Brunswick for an exhibition game Jan. 2 at 7.

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