ORONO — There is no magic formula that is going to instantly transform the University of Maine women’s basketball team into a consistent winner.
Any progress is going to come slowly — through hard work and commitment — one practice, one week, one game at a time.
That is the message first-year head coach Richard Barron is imparting on his players as they embark on a new chapter in the program’s history.
Coming off a dismal 4-25 season (2-14 in league play) that again saw the Black Bears knocked out in the first round of the America East tournament, the challenge is daunting.
“It’s like get-rich-quick schemes,” Barron said Wednesday. “The problem is, they’re not real. It’s hard work, it’s persistence, it’s a patient approach and consistency that I think results in success. That’s what I think we’re striving for.”
UMaine has a decent nucleus on which to begin re-establishing itself. The Bears feature several veterans with experience, led by sophomore guards Ashleigh Roberts and Amber Smith, senior guard Brittany Williams, junior post player Corinne Wellington and senior forward Samantha Baranowski.
Also returning are junior forward Shareka Maner, senior forward Samantha Wheeler and junior guard Rachele Burns of Gorham.
However, Wheeler continues to slowly work her way back from last November’s concussion and Burns is coming off her fourth knee surgery.
Sophomore center Ali Nalivaika is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery in September.
Barron isn’t dwelling on what players did or did not do in the past under coach Cindy Blodgett, who was fired March 29 by UMaine athletic director Steve Abbott. Barron wants everyone to work hard, demonstrate the ability to learn and improve and play well as a unit.
“We have a choice, collectively, as a team,” he said. “We have a choice as individuals how we respond, how we react, how we move forward.”
Barron wants his players to exhibit commitment, a strong work ethic and a relentless pursuit of excellence.
“If there’s anything that I’ve tried to really reinforce with them it is that I expect a conviction, a resolve in them that we will get there, that we will become a good program, that they will become good players. If that’s never in question, it’s just about our process,” Barron said.
UMaine heads into Friday’s season opener at Central Connecticut with plenty of unanswered questions. One senior graduated, while three other players, including starting guard Katelyn Vanderhoff, transferred out.
The Black Bears hope to help improve their prospects for success on the defensive end. That will include an aggressive dynamic that features applying pressure and making opponents endure some duress to get into their offensive sets.
“I don’t believe we have great individual defenders, so we have to defend collectively, have a team approach,” Barron said.
“I prefer to be in a situation on defense where we’re dictating what happens. We can control the outcome better if we can control where the ball goes initially.”
Barron believes UMaine is two deep at every position. That includes a group of guards led at the point by the speedy Williams (3.9 points, 1.6 assists, 1.2 steals per game last season).
“We’re trying to get her to be more aggressive in attacking the basket,” Barron said. “We think with scoring she has more potential.”
The gritty Roberts, a combination guard, is the top returning scorer (10.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg).
“Ashleigh is probably our most aggressive offensive player,” Barron said. “She has a swagger, a fearlessness about her game … we’ve got to channel that.”
Also in the backcourt are four freshmen in Kelsey Mattice, Becca Knight of Alfred and walk-ons Amber Dillon and Courtney Anderson of Greene, along with Burns, who has played sparingly in the past.
“Courtney brings great energy and hustle,” Barron said.
“Amber Dillon is very fast and has a great pull-up jump shot,” he added.
“Kelsey is probably our best passer into the interior, is a pretty good shooter when she gets set, and has a certain calmness about her,” Barron said.
Knight, a standout at Catherine McAuley High in Portland, joins Roberts on the wing.
“Becca’s got a lot of potential, a lot of skill,” Barron said. “If she makes a calculated move, I think she can be a good scorer.”
In the frontcourt, Wellington (5.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Baranowski (3.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg) have played a lot with only sporadic success.
“I’ve seen tremendous growth in Corinne since May when I was hired,” Barron said. “She’s working on becoming a more complete offensive player.”
“Sam Baranowski probably has the most versatile game of any of our posts,” Barron said. “The challenge for her is to do it in a team setting where she’s got to read double-teams and understand spacing and not predetermine what move she’s going to make.”
They are complemented by Maner (1.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg), who saw spot time last season after overcoming an injury, and freshman Danielle Walczak.
“Shareka gets her shot off in the post, her jump hook, better than anybody,” Barron said. “We need to get her to attack the basket more from a face-up position.”
“Danielle has done very well picking things up,” he said. “Everybody loves her. She’s so steady, just a great teammate.”
Barron and his staff spent the preseason teaching the players what their expectations are in all aspects of the program. Aiding in the process is the unity among team members.
“Whether they’re connected in a way that I think we ultimately want to get to, they might not be there yet,” Barron said, “but it’s something you can get positive reinforcement for and it’s going to build as a strength.”