ORONO, Maine — The 2012-13 season was like starting over — for the second year in a row — for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
Coach Richard Barron’s Black Bears were the youngest ballclub in Division I with nine freshmen and two sophomores. And they struggled throughout with injuries.
This season, UMaine still has nine underclassmen, but this group appears better equipped to be competitive in the America East Conference.
“It’s a different team this year in terms of maturity, chemistry and experience,” Barron said. “It’s still a young team, but they’ve got a lot more confidence.”
Four starters return for the Bears, who went 4-24 a year ago, 3-12 in league play. The season ended prematurely in the wake of a Feb. 26 bus crash near Georgetown, Mass., that left the driver seriously hurt, and UMaine players and coaches injured physically and shaken emotionally.
The Bears played their regular-season finale against New Hampshire, then did not compete in the America East tournament the following week.
UMaine underwent roster changes with the graduation of Corinne Wellington and the decision of co-leading scorer Danielle Walczak to stop playing. Sophomore guard Brittany Wells transferred to Division II Kentucky Wesleyan, while classmate Michal Assaf was forced to return to her native Israel to serve in the military.
Nearly nine months later, there is a more confident and relaxed attitude surrounding the team.
“We were working really hard to get better as a team collectively in the weight room, conditioning-wise, and then on our own,” said junior guard Courtney Anderson of Greene. “That gave us a push forward into the preseason and a lot more people came back in shape.”
Sophomore swing player Liz Wood had an impressive freshman campaign and is poised to become the Bears’ offensive and rebounding leader. She averaged 10.3 points and led the team with 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.5 steals on her way to recognition as the America East Co-Rookie of the Year.
Ashleigh Roberts, who averaged a team-best 10.4 points along with 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists last winter, is the only proven senior.
“I think she and Liz will consistently be our leaders in scoring,” said Barron, who expects offensive contributions across the board with a more fluid offensive scheme.
Anderson (7.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.4 apg), the lone junior, provides energy and experience in the backcourt. Senior Rachele Burns of Gorham, who sat out last season after a fourth knee surgery, is back on the court but is likely to have a limited role.
Sophomore forward Anna Heise (5.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg) played only 12 games last season after breaking her left ankle. She is working her way back after breaking her right foot during the summer. Classmate Lauren Bodine (4.5 ppg), who got hot late last season, is expected to provide a 3-point shooting presence.
Sophomores Mikaela Gustafsson (3.7 ppg, 2.4 rpg), Sophie Weckstrom (3.4 ppg, 1.9 apg), Chantel Charles (2.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg) and Milica Mitrovic (2.0 ppg) all are looking to make better and more frequent contributions.
“I definitely think we’re more comfortable, not only with college basketball in general, but with each other,” Wood said of the sophomores. “We feel like we know what we’re doing. We have a lot more confidence.”
UMaine’s freshman class is led by former Stearns High School exchange student Sigi Koizar. The savvy guard from Austria, a BDN All-Maine first-team pick in 2012, could make an immediate impact.
“She’s a good ball handler, good distributor, shoots the ball well, finishes well,” Barron said. “She’s a pretty complete guard.”
The Bears also welcome tenacious 5-foot-10-inch forward Sheraton Jones.
Barron said freshman forward Kianna Mayers recently asked for and has been granted a release from her National Letter of Intent and plans to transfer.
He believes the Bears should be able to make more consistent progress because of their increased experience and good health.
“I think we’re starting from a more advanced point,” said Barron, who is beginning his third season with the Bears and has an overall 12-47 record at UMaine.
“Last season, we really felt like we were kind of putting fingers in the dike. We weren’t able to sustain any kind of consistent play,” he added.
UMaine should be versatile and deep in the backcourt but must improve its post presence. Wood has proven she can play inside, while the 6-foot-4-inch Heise and 6-foot-2-inch Gustafsson are trying to refine their games and boost their rebounding production.
Senior center Ali Nalivaika, who worked her way back after three surgeries on her right knee, recently suffered a season-ending injury to her left knee.
UMaine opens the season Thursday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor against North Dakota State.