ORONO — Expectations and excitement filled the air Wednesday afternoon at Memorial Gymnasium.
Members of the University of Maine men’s basketball team discussed being picked to finish third in America East this season.
And while the men hope to live up to high expectations this season, the Black Bears women plan to prove they can be much better than the preseason ranking that listed them eighth.
Coach Ted Woodward’s UMaine men believe their goal of winning an America East championship may be within their grasp.
Being selected to finish third in the league coaches’ poll and first in a couple of other publications served only to intensify their hunger.
“The biggest question mark with that is, is this team going to live up to expectations?” said senior Sean McNally of Gardiner. “We haven’t been picked that high in a number of years and just to have that honor and respect is something we’re looking forward to.”
UMaine returns 11 of its 13 players, including nine of its top 10 scorers.
While there is plenty of confidence among the players, they’re trying to remain focused on daily improvement without looking too far ahead.
“Our best deal is coming in like it’s a regular season because sometimes when you put too much pressure on yourself and you try too hard at something, it backfires on you,” said junior Gerald McLemore, a first-team, all-conference guard last season.
“We don’t want to put the emphasis on these high expectations because that just puts too much pressure on ourselves,” he said.
Leadership and chemistry aren’t expected to be issues with seniors McNally, Troy Barnies of Auburn, Terrance Mitchell and Malachi Peay, and others, setting a poised and positive tone.
“They’ve been through a lot, so it’s a good core group of leadership and we feel like we’ve got great character up and down our whole roster,” Woodward said.
“This group has been great in terms of having great short-term vision; our goal is to win the next game in front of us and get a little bit better the next day after that,” he added.
The Bears will have a new point guard after the graduation of Junior Bernal.
Junior Andrew Rogers returns for his junior season, while junior college transfer Raheem Singleton is ready to contribute.
“That’s going to be a big hole to replace,” Woodward said. “Our point guard position will be different this year, there’s no question about that.”
Singleton’s challenge is to learn the intricacies of the offense and the tendencies of his teammates.
“The coaching staff, they’re helping make me feel as comfortable as possible,” said Singleton, who joins freshman forward Alasdair Fraser as the only newcomers.
“We’re coming into a team that’s already been together, already has a sense of unity, and they embraced me and Aly. Everybody’s working together, so it’s a good feeling.”
UMaine women laden with potential
Coach Cindy Blodgett’s UMaine women are at the other end of the spectrum.
Recent struggles, combined with injuries, mean the Bears aren’t considered a big threat in America East this season. Blodgett understands the sentiment.
“You can’t speed up experience,” Bldogett said. “Players will get experience over time.
“As you move forward, some people step out and stick out in the pack.”
Junior All-AE choice Samantha Wheeler relishes having the opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
“It’s more of a motivational tool that we’ll use in practice,” Wheeler said. “It’s all about the chase.
“It makes it more exciting being the underdog,” she added.
The Bears have been hampered by injuries, including Tanna Ross of Newburgh, who played in only nine games last season but is ready to go after offseason surgery.
UMaine’s lone senior is motivated by the effort and determination of her teammates as they try to establish a winning chemistry.
“It’s actually really nice to know that you’ve got a bunch of kids under you that are trying to make the program better, just like you did, coming up through,” Ross said. “It’s nice to be with a group of kids that work so hard.”
Versatile guard Ashleigh Roberts is one of four freshmen and five newcomers on this year’s squad. She has been challenged by the rigorous workouts and the need to maintain high effort and intensity despite normal soreness or fatigue.
Roberts has a good feeling about this group of players.
“We work hard, we’re competitive, we push each other every day,” she said. “I think there’s good things to come.”
UMaine benefited greatly, on and off the court, from its four-game exhibition tour of Canada in August.
“It was an awesome experience,” said sophomore Katelyn Vanderhoff.
“I think our team is a lot closer this year and the Canada tour contributed to that,” she added. “That gives us a head start on everybody else.”
Blodgett is trying to keep her players focused on maximizing their efforts each and every day. There are 10 freshmen and sophomores among the 14 players on the team.
“I think for us it’s as simple as daily progress,” Blodgett said.
“It goes back to dedication and commitment.”