WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — The University of Maine women’s basketball program has reached a critical crossroad.
For now, the Black Bears must continue straight ahead in the hope the road ahead leads to success.
Thursday night, the Bears’ season ended with a 76-55 first-round loss to Stony Brook in the America East tournament. Their 4-25 record during 2010-11 was the worst in program history.
After four years mired at the bottom of the conference standings, including a 24-94 overall record (.203), even the most loyal and optimistic fans are questioning whether coach Cindy Blodgett is the right person to lead the program.
The Black Bear faithful had better hope so.
Blodgett almost certainly will remain the coach at UMaine for another year. Only last fall, outgoing athletic director Blake James granted her a two-year contract extension through the 2012-13 season.
What that means is, unless the financially strapped university wants to eat her annual salary of approximately $107,000 — for two years — there is unlikely to be a coaching change.
If UMaine did make a change, it then would have to pay a new coach, presumably at a higher salary than the one Blodgett is receiving.
That’s what happened when Ann McInerney resigned, yet was paid for another year while serving as a “volunteer” assistant at Harvard, and Blodgett was hired.
The question then becomes, is it worth paying double, in the short term, for a new coach who is going to be utilizing the players she or he inherits from the old coach?
Even with a disgruntled fan base, reduced gate receipts and the negativity that comes with having a consistently losing program, UMaine and its fans must hold out hope Blodgett can get things turned around soon.
The other dynamic that complicates any thoughts about terminating Blodgett is the pending transition within the UMaine administration.
Steve Abbott arrived in September as the interim athletic director, which puts him in a difficult position. Unless he ultimately applies for the job on a permanent basis and is hired, he is likely to defer such a key hiring and firing decision to the new leadership.
The search for a new athletic director probably won’t be completed until this summer.
UMaine President Bob Kennedy, who ultimately hired Blodgett in the first place, is a “lame duck” in his position, one he will vacate on June 30. With the search for a new president presumably nearing completion, it seems reasonable to allow the new president and AD to handle the situation as they deem appropriate.
Even so, it is clear the status quo cannot continue for Blodgett and the UMaine women’s basketball program.
Next season, every player on the roster will be a Blodgett recruit. That will include seniors Sam Wheeler, Brittany Williams, Sam Baranowski and redshirt junior Corinne Wellington, along with junior Katelyn Vanderhoff and numerous underclassmen.
Thus far, few of those players have proven themselves as dependable, effective Division I basketball players.
That’s on Blodgett, who has been responsible for recruiting them.
However, it must be noted injuries have taken a toll during the last two seasons.
This winter, UMaine lost all-conference junior forward (Wheeler) to a concussion and promising redshirt freshman guard Rachele Burns of Gorham to a knee injury, both early in the season. Freshman forward Jaymie Druding also missed a handful of games with a shoulder issue.
Last season, the Bears were without Burns (knee) and freshman Shareka Maner (shoulder) for the entire season and had the services of then-junior Tanna Ross of Newburgh for only nine games at the end of the year.
The jury is still out on most of the younger players, although freshman Ashleigh Roberts was recognized on the America East All-Rookie Team this season.
Blodgett also is counting on what she believes is a talented class of incoming freshmen to boost the Black Bears’ fortunes next season.
But time is running out.
Four years seemed a reasonable amount of time for Blodgett and her staff to produce a competitive America East program. That clearly hasn’t happened.
In spite of her spectacular playing career at UMaine and the fame and fortune she brought to the university from 1994-98, Blodgett must now be judged solely on her ability to coach and recruit.
If UMaine doesn’t show significant signs of improvement next season, let’s say 12 wins and a postseason victory, the university should cut its losses, pay the contract buyout of the final year and start over with new leadership.