ORONO, Maine — It has been a whirlwind first four months for the freshmen on the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
The group of nine players consists of six young women from Europe and the Middle East, and three Americans.
To attend UMaine and begin their new lives as Division I student-athletes, they moved far from home. They have shared that experience.
“It’s been hard. You have to grow up fast,” said Liz Wood of Catlett, Va. “There’s definitely a lot of stress that comes along with organizing your time between basketball and school, but I think we’re getting the hang of it.”
While taxing both mentally and physically, the busy schedule does seem to help the time go by quickly for coach Richard Barron’s team.
“I’m so surprised to say that I’ve been here now for four months,” said Mikaela Gustafsson of Sodertalje, Sweden. “It doesn’t feel like it.”
Even so, being a first-time student-athlete isn’t without challenges on and off the court.
“It depends on the day,” Wood said. “When things get harder, you start missing home, and you have your days where it feels like everything’s falling apart, but that happens anywhere.”
Anna Heise of Halle, Germany, who also marveled at how quickly the first semester seemed to go by, credited her teammates with helping her through any difficult moments.
“Sometimes when you have a bad day, usually you can go home and get a hug from your mom,” said Heise, who also had to deal with the death of her grandmother this fall.
“I get so much help from my team, from my coaches,” Heise added. “It was hard, but they helped me a lot.”
These days, home is all most of the players can think about.
Later this week, once they have completed final exams, most of the Black Bears will pack their bags for a brief trip home.
The five freshmen who were interviewed prior to Monday’s practice admitted it will be a most welcome break, albeit a brief one.
“I’m looking forward to it a lot. I get to spend like four-and-a-half days at home,” said an excited Sophie Weckstrom of Espoo, Finland.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the main attraction for the women will be reuniting with their families and friends.
“It’s truly a blessing to be able to get home for a few days and see the ones that care about you and love you the most,” said Brittany Wells of Indianapolis, who spent the early part of the summer in Orono, then returned to start the fall semester.
Wells admitted it will be bittersweet as she will, in turn, be missing her basketball family while she’s home.
Wood is anxious to see her family, reunite with her boyfriend and see her dog.
Barron is a proponent of providing his players with at least some time off during the holidays.
“I always give them a break for Christmas,” said Barron, who pointed out student-athletes make a lot of sacrifices.
“We want them to have as normal a college experience as they can,” he added.
Most of the freshmen also are eager to eat some home-cooked food, including “real” mashed potatoes and eggs, rather than the powdered variety.
Weckstrom doesn’t plan to be too choosy with the menu and jokingly said she plans to consume enough to induce a “food coma.”
Gustafsson, who explained Swedes also enjoy foods such as turkey and ham for Christmas dinner, looks forward to being able to spend time in her own bedroom.
Two freshmen will not have the opportunity to return home for the holidays and instead will remain in Orono.
“It’s not feasible or affordable for them to get home, so they’re probably going to celebrate Christmas with our family, which we’re very excited about,” Barron said.
UMaine’s freshmen said they aren’t discouraged, despite a 1-9 start to the basketball season. And a little rest should help before they return to action Dec. 28 at James Madison.
“I think it’s really good for some of us to go home and get a little break in the middle of everything,” Gustafsson said.
They expressed confidence and resolve about turning things around.
“Of course we want to win, so it’s not fun having a record as it is right now, but at the same time we see our potential,” Gustafsson said. “We just need to keep our heads high, keep working hard and learn from the mistakes we made.”
The Black Bears will gather Dec. 26 in Washington, D.C., where they will prepare for a grueling series of four games in nine days in Virginia and Maryland.
“We know it’s not going to happen right away, but we know it’s getting there,” Wood said of the team’s progress. “Knowing where we can be and knowing it’ll mean that much more to us after the rough start really motivates us.”