ORONO — In and around Memorial Gym this fall, there has been an air of confidence surrounding the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
Having struggled during the three seasons since coach Cindy Blodgett’s arrival, the upperclassmen now have a better sense of where they want to go and what it’s going to take to get there.
With an improving talent pool, resilience built from dealing with frequent setbacks and a desire to prove themselves, the Black Bears hope to win more games this season.
“We come to work hard every day at practice so that we know that we’re get every ounce of everything that we can get out of it,” said Tanna Ross of Newburgh, the team’s only senior. “It’s just a matter of what we’re capable of and what we want to put our minds to.”
Blodgett is confident she has a group of players who possess the right attitude, work ethic and ability to turn things around. That is especially try of the five upperclassmen.
“It comes with maturity,” Blodgett said.
“They understand where we want to take the program. They want to be good leaders, they want the team to be successful and they’re all unselfish.”
UMaine must improve greatly to win consistently and will take that first step when it opens at home on Saturday at noon against Harvard.
The Bears played a little better defensively last season, but still allowed 64.8 points on 42 percent shooting, among the worst in America East.
The Bears also were susceptible to opponents’ 3-point shooters (.355) and teams that were good attacking in transition.
Among those expected to spearhead the defense for UMaine are junior forward Samantha Wheeler, sophomore guard Katelyn Vanderhoff and junior guard Brittany Williams. Freshman guard Ashleigh Roberts is another potential difference-maker on defense.
“We have to be more consistent and we have to be willing to hang our hat on how we play defensively,” said Blodgett, who pointed to the importance of rebounding to aid that effort.
UMaine will continue to play man-to-man and its 1-2-2 matchup zone and also will utilize a 1-2-2 three-quarter-court press, among other alignments.
“We’re working on being a tough, defense-oriented team that can get turnovers and easy baskets,” Blodgett said.
The Bears look to improve their offensive production after ranking in the bottom 10 percent of all Division I squads last season in scoring (54.6 points per game), field-goal percentage (.356) and 3-point field goals per game (3.3).
They are stressing making good decisions with the ball after committing 20 turnovers per contest.
Wheeler, Vanderhoff and junior forward Corinne Wellington are the three returning starters. Wheeler led the team in scoring (10.8 ppg), rebounding (7.2 rpg) and free-throw percentage (.779).
“With Sam Wheeler, she gives you flexibility,” Blodgett said. “She can play on the wing or as a post player, which speaks to her athleticism and her unselfishness.”
Vanderhoff, who is expected to play both point guard and shooting guard, is a calming influence on the team. She averaged 6.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.1 steals as a freshman.
“She’s sort of the glue for us in terms of her on-court presence,” Blodgett said. “She plays with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and makes good decisions.”
At 6-foot-2, Wellington (4.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg) must become more of a consistent, two-way presence in the paint.
“She has worked very hard and she’s learning to pick her spots, understanding what she wants to do with (the ball) a little bit quicker, so she’s a little more decisive,” Blodgett said.
Other veterans with considerable experience include junior forward Sam Baranowski (4.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg), junior point guard Williams (2.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg) and Ross (6.7 ppg), who played only nine games last season because of an injury.
“Sam B. has decent post-up moves, a nice fallaway jumper and some range, 15-17 feet,” Blodgett said.
“Britt is much more sure of herself, more aggressive at both ends,” she continued. “She’s someone who goes out there and is willing to play defense.”
Ross has provided leadership and commitment, but can shoot the 3.
“She’s going to stretch the defense,” Blodgett said.
UMaine also should have better depth this season, which will enable the Bears to stay fresh or mix and match personnel.
Redshirt freshman Amber Smith has improved her defense and has shown the ability to score consistently.
“She’s strong and she uses her body in the post,” Blodgett said.
Roberts, who can play either guard spot, appears ready to make an immediate impact. She is strong, handles the ball well and is a confident shooter.
“I think Ashleigh is going to help us in many ways,” Blodgett said. “We can do multiple things with her.”
Also, 6-4 freshman center Ali Nalivaika is a bigger defensive presence in the paint and could see playing time early on. Freshmen Jaymie Druding (6-1) and Greer Babbe (6-3) will provide depth in the post.
“What’s nice is there’s competition now among the players at each position which makes practice more competitive,” Blodgett said.
The Bears could have even more versatility once its injured players return to action. Sheay Longstaff, a junior college transfer, is a 3-point shooter, while redshirt freshman Shareka Maner could help out at forward.
Redshirt freshman Rachele Burns of Gorham, coming off a third reconstructive knee surgery, is working her way back into playing shape after two years out of action.
“We have that whole host of unknowns,” Blodgett said, hoping they’ll become positives.
The upperclassmen who have been through some difficult seasons, don’t expect everything to change overnight.
“The season’s going to be like a roller coaster: there’s going to be ups and downs no matter what,” Wheeler said. “We just need to focus on us and keep our heads level.”