ORONO, Maine — Rachele Burns walked into the lobby at Memorial Gym on Thursday afternoon and immediately asked to sit down.
Her surgically repaired knees have survived her final basketball season at the University of Maine, but they ached more than usual after Burns spent several hours on her feet as a physical education student teacher at Old Town Elementary School.
As the fifth-year senior from Gorham has learned to endure frequent pain, her resilience and perseverance in the face of physical hardships have been symbolic of the Black Bears’ resurgence this season.
Burns, who sat out the 2012-2013 campaign to serve as a student assistant coach, has been on the court most of this season. Coach Richard Barron’s team (17-14) has advanced to the second round of the Women’s Basketball Invitational and Sunday’s 2 p.m. game at Fairfield (Conn.) University.
“It’s definitely gratifying,” said Burns, who has appeared in 10 games this season, 23 in her career.
On Wednesday night, Burns made her first career start and hit a 3-pointer off a play called for her by Barron in UMaine’s 77-47 win over Bucknell.
“It was awesome,” she said.
Burns, who underwent two knee surgeries prior to her arrival and two more since enrolling, has remained steadfast in her desire to make the most of her five years at UMaine.
“It’s been a great experience,” she added. “I’m glad that I could come back and help turn the program around and be part of the team.”
Even though Burns has not been a significant contributor in games, she has earned the respect of her coaches and teammates.
“We really value Rachele’s presence on the team and all the things that she’s done for this program,” said junior Courtney Anderson of Greene. “She’s willing to do anything for anyone.”
“Rachele’s just pushing through. That’s the epitome of what we’ve done as a program,” she added.
Last summer, Barron invited Burns to try playing again. It was an offer she accepted — with a one-day-at-a-time mentality.
“There was really no risk in trying, as long as her knees were going to hold up. That was my concern after the first year,” Barron said.
“She worked hard and came a long way in a relatively short period of time,” he added.
The year off had helped Burns’ body recover, but the former BDN All-Maine choice realized long ago that she would never be the same.
“It’s a Maine pride thing for me. Whatever I can do to help the Maine Black Bear program get back to where it was, that’s what I want to do,” Burns said last October.
Burns gave her all in practices and tried to serve as a leader on a team that had only one other senior in uniform.
“Where Rachele’s matured is, it’s not that she’s talked more. She’s talked less,” Barron said. “Therefore, what she has to say becomes more meaningful.”
Through the setbacks, Burns has remained focused on her long-term goal, which is to become a basketball coach.
She received valuable experience in that realm last season, when she handled a variety of duties as a student assistant.
“It really showed me that I want to be involved in coaching,” she said. “I’m hoping that it’s the Division I level.”
Barron was pleased to be able to help facilitate Burns’ development.
“She loves the game, she’s a junkie,” he said. “She’s always trying to figure out what’s going on and asks good questions. She has good insight because she’s always studying.”
Barron nominated Burns for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s “So You Want To Be a Coach” program. She was among 50 student-athletes selected for the three-day workshop to be held April 4-6 during the NCAA Division I Women’s Final Four in Nashville, Tenn.
Barron said participants will be mentored by some prominent coaches and will have the chance to plug into the network of college coaches.
“A lot of it is how to be successful off the court in this business, the values of coaching, what’s appropriate, what’s the lifestyle like,” he explained. “We want to see more women in coaching, nurture people that already have a disposition for it.”
Burns, who on Monday begins a student-teaching stint at Bangor High School, believes her UMaine career has helped prepare her to become a coach.
“I think I’ve made the best of the situations that I’ve been in,” she said. “I can honestly say I can graduate with no regrets.”