ORONO, Maine — Kristin Baker has spent her basketball career fiercely trying to prove she belongs.
She grew up in Bingham with two older brothers and often played basketball with boys from her mother’s daycare. It only fueled her desire to compete.
Basketball is a game dominated by tall people, which doesn’t seem a good fit with the 5-foot-5 Baker. Yet what she lacks in height she has made up for with determination and grit.
Those characteristics have helped Baker emerge as a productive guard for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
Baker made the transition from starring at Class D Upper Kennebec Valley High School — a school with an enrollment of 110 — to starting at NCAA Division I UMaine.
“She’s come such a long way. It’s fun to watch her development,” said Maryland Baltimore County head coach Phil Stern. “She’s one of the harder point guards in the league to guard right now.”
Dare to dream
Baker’s dream was conceived around the time she was in sixth grade. Ever since, she often gathered with other youngsters from Bingham at the town’s outdoor basketball court.
“If you were going to hang out, you were going to hang out at the court,” Baker said. “It was packed. Even if you didn’t play ball, you would go and watch.”
She was inspired by the successful UMaine women’s program. A few years earlier, Cindy Blodgett of Clinton helped inspire young players and fans across the state.
“It’s just amazing to see what she did and how far she went. It shows what you can accomplish,” said Baker, who fancied herself suiting up for the Black Bears.
“Sixth grade I remember for sure that I said I was going to come to UMaine,” Baker said.
Hitting the weights
Baker began working toward that lofty goal, playing basketball wherever she could.
She praised her parents, Chuck and Francine Baker, for supporting her. She gave special thanks to her mother’s efforts.
Baker’s development was enhanced by a strength and conditioning program set up for SAD 13 students by phys ed teacher Jack Kaplan.
Baker, who started lifting weights in seventh grade, saw it as another way to improve her skills and prove herself.
“Our strength coach was awesome,” Baker said. “He made me realize how important lifting was and what it could bring to you on the court. He was someone who helped instill my work ethic.”
Baker’s commitment to strength training has continued at UMaine where, despite her small stature, she is the team leader in most categories.
“She’s the beast of the beasts,” quipped UMaine teammate Katia Bratishko. “She could probably pick me up and throw me.”
Running down the dream
Baker had an exceptional career at Valley High playing for coach Gordon Hartwell, of whom she speaks glowingly. She helped the Cavaliers reach the Western Maine Class D title game three times and led Valley to the regional championship as a senior in 2006.
The two-time team captain played with reckess abandon and was a dynamic, two-way performer. Baker finished with a school-record 1,701 points and dished out 443 assists in four seasons.
“She’s far and away the best basketball player Valley girls have ever produced,” Hartwell told the BDN in 2005.
“She demands perfection of herself all the time,” he added.
The East-West Conference soccer all-star also helped her AAU team, coached by Bill Libby, to a state title.
Baker was the valedictorian of her small class at Valley High. Against the advice of her guidance counselor, she applied to only one college — UMaine.
She ignored letters from other college basketball coaches. She wasn’t interested in Division III, and Division II meant moving out of state, far from her family.
Baker’s mind was made up.
She attended UMaine summer basketball camps with coach Sharon Versyp, then after the arrival of Ann McInerney, who offered to let Baker walk on.
“That’s all I was looking for was any kind of chance,” Baker said. “That was probably just as big for me as someone getting a phone call with a scholarship.”
Proving she belongs
Baker arrived at UMaine in 2006 determined not to earn a scholarship — the initial measure of a player’s Division I worthiness — but to prove she belonged.
She was the only nonscholarship player on the roster, but Baker was thrilled to be wearing the UMaine uniform.
And she wasn’t fully prepared for the magnitude of the challenge that confronted her.
It’s a huge jump from Maine Class D ball to Division I. Players are bigger, quicker, stronger. Defense takes on increased importance.
And the same free-wheeling, take-charge style that had made Baker a star at Bingham became her worst enemy trying to adapt to a more regimented offense.
“My freshman year definitely was one of the hardest years of my life,” admitted Baker, who had to accept it was going to take time to make the transition.
“That was tough, knowing that I wasn’t ready and confident enough to go out there and perform how I wanted to,” she said. “It took a lot more work that I had to do, which was fine. But it’s tough coming every day and not playing.”
Baker said learning to play defense against better players was the hardest part. She also had to revamp her shot in order to get it off more quickly.
Baker wound up playing 17 minutes, in 12 games, as a freshman. She had asked McInerney about redshirting, but it didn’t happen.
“Maybe they didn’t think I would be here that long for it to matter,” Baker said with a laugh.
There had always been naysayers who said Baker was too small, too slow or not good enough to play Division I ball. Baker understood their skepticism.
“I knew myself,” Baker said. “Hey, I might have said the same thing if I was in their shoes. I didn’t take it like any big deal. I am short and I get that.”
However, Baker never expected to hear similar comments from her coaches.
“If they say that to you, it’s like, wow, they really don’t see anything in you,” she said. “Definitely I just used it. In my head, I thought, ‘no, I’m better than this.’ I knew that I could outwork people.”
A new beginning
Baker’s outlook changed dramatically when McInerney stepped down abruptly after the 2006-07 season.
When Blodgett rejoined the program as its coach, they were all starting over — together.
“She just put me on an even playing field with everybody from the start,” Baker said.
“She never treated me like I was a walk-on. It was so different my sophomore year that I had a completely new chance at everything.”
Baker responded to the vote of confidence. She continued to work hard on the court and in the weight room.
Her efforts didn’t go unnoticed, as Blodgett made her a team captain.
“I love her drive. I love her competitiveness,” Blodgett said. “It’s nice to have someone I can count on every single day in practice and give everything they have. I’ve never questioned her willingness to work and her wanting to win and be successful.”
Baker contributed as a sophomore, averaging 3.0 points and 2.2 assists in 29 games, including 13 starts. She was beginning to understand how her game fit at this level.
Prior to the second semester, Baker received a text message from her coach asking to meet with her.
“When I went in there and she told me, I was shocked. I hadn’t even seen it coming,” Baker said of the scholarship offer.
Last season, Baker made more of an impact. She averaged 6.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists, but struggled with turnovers.
She admits it has been a constant learning process.
“I still have problems seeing something I might be able to get away with, a pass or something,” Baker said. “I’ve always kind of risked it a little too much with stuff like that.”
In it to win
For Baker, the most difficult part of her UMaine experience has been the team’s lack of success. Coming into this season, the Black Bears had compiled a 25-63 record during her career.
“UMaine women’s basketball tradition is being successful, so when I came here I never expected what it’s been like. I didn’t expect the losing, so it has been really tough,” Baker said.
The struggles haven’t dimmed her enthusiasm or her commitment to helping restore the Bears as an elite team in America East.
This winter, Baker has put together her most productive season in a UMaine uniform. She is averaging a team-leading 11.0 points, 3.7 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
Her 39 3-pointers also are tops on the squad.
“She’s really added to her game this year,” Blodgett said. “I put her on the opponent’s best guard [defensively] and I don’t think twice about it.
“There’s a certain toughness that she brings every single time she plays, whether she plays a great game or not.”
Baker has earned the respect of other America East coaches, who have watched her development.
She ranks fifth in the league in assists, sixth in 3-pointers and seventh in steals. She is eighth in minutes played (33.1 mpg) and eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio (0.9).
“I just love that kid. She plays so hard,” said Stony Brook coach Michele Cherry.
“She’s just one of those kids, to me, that you hate playing against, but you love having her on your team. She’s just feisty, she’s aggressive and she plays with a chip on her shoulder. And I mean that in the most positive way.”
The big picture
Baker is student-teaching at Bangor High this semester with phys ed instructor Shannan Fotter. Her basketball career ends next month and she is focused on helping UMaine make a strong stretch run.
The Bears take a 7-15 record (3-7 AE) into Sunday’s game at UMBC. Despite a handful of injuries, they appear to be demonstrating progress.
“I’m just really excited for these next few weeks because I know we can play with everyone in this conference when we play the way we’re capable of playing,” she said.
Regardless of how the Bears finish, Baker sees the big picture.
“If I can help this university or this program, because it’s done so much for me, and if that’s going to help bring it back to where it’s supposed to be, then I’m not completely disappointed,” she said.
Blodgett said Baker’s career serves as an inspiration to future Maine girls who are small yet willing to dream big.
“She gives hope to a lot of kids who are 5-5 growing up and aspiring to play Division I basketball,” Blodgett said. “She’s a great example that if you work really hard and you don’t listen to naysayers you’re going to come into contact with, that with determination and not giving in to that, you can do anything.”