ORONO — Maria Baeza has supported University of Maine women’s basketball for many years as a member of the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball.
Tuesday afternoon, Baeza did a subdued dance on the Memorial Gymnasium hardwood as she softly sang “I’m so excited,” the first three words of the 1993 song by the Pointer Sisters.
For the first time in months, there was excitement in the faces and hope in the voices of UMaine women’s basketball backers.
The cause of their reinvigorated enthusiasm came with the arrival of Richard Barron, the newly hired head coach. There was an unmistakable air of optimism in “The Pit,” where Barron was introduced Tuesday to alumni, fans, boosters and staff members.
Baeza was among those who spent time with Barron prior to his arrival. She and former UMaine basketball star Emily Ellis, a Brooks native who was a member of the search committee, picked him up Monday at Portland International Jetport.
“There’s such a combination of energy, intelligence, genuineness, excitement, integrity and vision,” Baeza said.
Barron immediately endeared himself to many of those in attendance. He spoke frankly after receiving a standing ovation.
“I am overwhelmed by the response,” Barron said. “I’m humbled to see so many of you here.”
He made it clear one of the key factors in his decision to accept the UMaine job was the outpouring of support he received from people he met during his first visit to Orono.
Barron was especially complimentary of UMaine athletic director Steve Abbott, UMaine President Robert Kennedy, search committee chair Robert Cobb, Ellis and Baeza.
Barron quipped he was told the crowd had not arrived to see him, rather former UMaine standout Ashley Underwood of Benton. She is appearing on CBS’ “Survivor: Redemption Island” series.
Ellis said Barron welcomes the help of anyone who would like to help the Black Bears.
“With him, it’s going to be an embrace,” Ellis said. “It’s not like anybody who wants to be involved with the program won’t have an opportunity to be involved, from the entire state.”
Ellis followed Barron’s lead by joining former UMaine star Amy Vachon of Augusta in rallying some Black Bear alumnae for Tuesday’s event. That group included Mary “Kissy” Walker, Lauree Gott, Kelly Nobert LaFountain, Tracy Guerrette and Underwood.
Guerrette, who is the women’s basketball coach at UMaine-Presque Isle, made the 2 1/2-hour drive to Orono to show her support for Barron and the Bears.
“I’d like to see this program go back to where it’s been and I think we can achieve that,” Guerrette said.
“I wanted to come down here and support them and to have a chance to meet (Barron) as well.”
As for whether UMaine should have hired a woman as opposed to man for the job, Ellis had some definitive thoughts on the subject.
“Sometimes, the best man for the job really is a man,” Ellis said. “I’ve got to tell you. To me, that never would matter.”
Plus, Barron has a track record that includes revitalizing the program at Princeton during his six seasons there.
Vachon drove up from Portland, where she is a guidance counselor and the girls basketball coach at Catherine McAuley School. She and many alums have been saddened to see how the program has fallen on hard times in recent years.
“I just wanted to support coach Barron, support the program,” Vachon said. “He’s a great coach and we’re really lucky to have him here to try and restore the excitement and the pride that is what Maine women’s basketball always has been and what it is.”
That kind of willingness to stick with the program, or come back to it, is what Barron is counting on.
“We all have to get back in here,” he said. “We can’t wait for a 25-win season to start coming back to games. We need people in the stands first. I know we can do it again.”