On Friday afternoon, the Black Black Bears boarded a Cyr Bus Lines motorcoach on its way to New Hampshire for their regular-season finale against the Wildcats.
UMaine players and coaches said there is no lingering sense of dread or fear when they travel — even though barely a year has passed since the team bus careened across two southbound lanes, the median and four lanes of oncoming northbound traffic on Interstate 95 in Georgetown, Mass., before crashing into a stand of trees on Feb. 26, 2013.
“Initially, it was pretty scary,” admitted senior Ashleigh Roberts. “Nowadays, I don’t really think about it too much. I don’t think my teammates do, either.”
The day after the accident, UMaine head coach Richard Barron described the outcome as “miraculous.”
The driver of the motorcoach, Jeff Hamlin of Charleston, was the most seriously injured. He suffered broken ribs and burns that left him in a Boston hospital for almost two months.
Hamlin, 56, has recovered from his crash-related injuries, according to Rick Soules, the general manager at Cyr Bus Lines in Old Town.
“He’s a wonderful guy,” Soules said. “It was a sad, unfortunate set of circumstances.”
Soules said Hamlin has not returned to work at Cyr.
Student-athlete Milica Mitrovic’s broken hand was the most significant injury incurred by any of the passengers, some of whom suffered cuts and bruises.
“One thing could have happened differently that night and we wouldn’t be here,” said sophomore Liz Wood. “I think it instills a sense of appreciation for every day is a gift and you have to take advantage of it. I think our team does a good job remembering that.”
The Black Bears appear to be showing no ill effects from the crash.
UMaine is enjoying the program’s best season since 2004-2005 with a 15-13 overall record and a 9-6 America East mark going into Saturday’s contest at New Hampshire.
“I think because we all survived it and without long-lasting, permanent injuries, it was something that we looked at as having brought us together and that we endured,” Barron said. “That’s probably something that strengthens our team.”
Barron suffered minor cuts on his face and head when he attempted to help after the driver slumped over the wheel with the bus traveling in excess of 60 mph.
The 11-game turnaround after last season’s 4-24 record ranks second in Division I women’s basketball this season. While much of that success can be attributed to the improvement of a large contingent of young players, the accident may have provided some intangible benefits.
“I think that really taught us to fight and I think that’s the reason we’re as successful as we are this year and driven to be more successful next year,” Wood said.
The most difficult time for all involved was the days and weeks immediately after the crash.
At the time, the players voted to play their last regular-season home game only four days later. However, UMaine officials determined it would be in the best interest of the student-athletes not to attend the America East tournament the following week.
“Our postseason was pretty hard,” Roberts said. “Parts of me think it was so time consuming because our coaches didn’t leave us any time to think about what happened.”
The crash was the last in a series of season-long struggles the youthful team (8 freshmen) endured.
“They went through a lot last year as a team, that kind of being the final straw,” said assistant coach Amy Vachon. “It was a hard year, so it can either break you or make you stronger. I think it’s made them stronger.”
Even having put the memory of the accident largely in the rearview mirror, there is one thing that can elicit a brief moment of fear in everyone on the team.
“There’s not a bus trip that we go on that when we hit the rumble strips we don’t all pop our heads up,” Barron said. “We look like meerkats the way our heads pop up to see what’s going on.”
“I don’t think that’s ever going to go away,” Wood added.
Associate head coach Todd Steelman said he seldom thinks about the accident, but he realizes they were lucky to come away relatively unscathed.
“My faith is pretty strong, so I would certainly believe that there was protection over our bus,” he said. “You’ll never forget it, but it’s not anything that you dwell on.”
Barron said he has only brought up the crash with the team once since last spring. That came when a reporter from ESPN wanted to do a story about the Bears’ first bus trip of the season in November.
“I didn’t want our kids thinking about it,” he said. “I wanted them to move on and I didn’t want that to be how our team was identified — the team that was in the bus wreck.”
Barron said he has since passed the accident scene several times. Like the emotional wounds experienced by some, the physical signs of the crash have dissipated.
“We went through a traumatic experience together and that’s one of those moments that really does bring you closer together,” he said.