November 23, 2017
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Mainers pursuing college basketball opportunities face daunting odds

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff
Updated:

BANGOR, Maine — Kissy Walker was not lacking in basketball credentials when she graduated from Cony High School of Augusta.

The point guard was selected to the 1981 Bangor Daily News All-Maine third team after leading the Rams to a 14-4 record and a spot in the Eastern Maine Class A semifinals.

That talent led Walker to the Division I University of Maine, where she became teammates with in-state recruits such as Emily Ellis, Liz Coffin and Lauree Gott and as a senior helped the Black Bears win the 1986 Seaboard Conference championship.

“For me it was just the right fit at the right time,” said Walker, the 26th-year women’s basketball coach at Husson University in Bangor. “I was a point guard and I did not have to be a scorer because we had Liz and Emily and Lauree and other post players who could score. I just needed to be able to get the ball up the floor and run the show.

“On another team they might have needed a point guard who was a shooter, who could create things and drive to the hoop. I was quick and small and had good hands and I could handle the ball and get it up the floor so it fit for me, but in another given year it might not have.”

Times have changed from when Walker’s basketball fundamentals and competitive instincts were honed largely through pickup games at local playgrounds or individual repetition on backyard hoops.

Youth programs have replaced much of that spontaneous learning with more organized instruction while the Internet and social media have allowed even the smallest of basketball communities to join what is now a global phenomenon.

That makes the quest for NCAA Division I roster spots and the dream of a trip to the Final Four even more imposing, particularly for hopefuls from less-populated areas removed from the sport’s competitive mainstream.

According to a recent study done by the NCAA in conjunction with statistics provided by the National Federation of State High School Associations, only 0.6 percent of Maine girls high school players and 0.4 percent of the state’s boys high school basketball participants from 2013 to 2016 continued their basketball careers at Division I programs after graduation.

Maine is tied with Hawaii for the fifth-lowest percentage in the boys rankings, ahead of only Wyoming (0.2 percent), North Dakota (0.2), South Dakota (0.3) and Alaska (0.3). It has the lowest rate among New England states behind Connecticut (1.4 percent), Rhode Island (0.7), Massachusetts (0.6), New Hampshire (0.6) and Vermont (0.5).

The rates for girls Division I basketball hopefuls from the Pine Tree State are similar. Maine is tied with Alaska and South Dakota for the fourth-lowest rate, ahead of only Rhode Island (0.3), Wyoming (0.5) and Nebraska (0.5). Connecticut leads the New England states at 1.7 percent, followed by Massachusetts (0.9), Vermont (0.7) and New Hampshire (0.6).

Maryland has the highest percentage of both boys and girls high school players who go on to play Division I college basketball — 5.0 percent of its boys and 4.5 percent of its girls.

“Here is what I say to kids at camp when when we’re talking about education and basketball and certainly following your dreams,” said Bob Walsh, who recently completed his third season as head men’s basketball coach at UMaine.

“I tell them if you took a garbage can and put a hundred nickels in it and painted one of them red and gave you one chance to put your hand in there and find the red nickel, those are your chances of playing Division I basketball.”

Nearly as daunting as the challenge of making a Division I team are the odds of earning a spot on any NCAA-level basketball program.

According to the research, only 3.4 percent of boys high school players nationwide go on to play college basketball in any of the NCAA’s three divisions.

Of that 3.4 percent, 1 percent moves on to Division I rosters while another 1 percent competes at the Division II level and 1.4 percent advances to non-scholarship Division III programs.

Just 3.9 percent of high school girls basketball players eventually join an NCAA team with 1.2 percent in Division I, 1.1 percent in Division II and 1.6 percent in Division III.

Among the most recent Maine high school players to move to the Division I ranks, Nick Mayo of Belgrade earned All-Ohio Valley Conference first-team accolades this winter as a sophomore at Eastern Kentucky University while freshman Andrew Fleming of South Paris earned America East All-Rookie accolades for UMaine.

On the women’s side, Division I contributors this winter included junior Tiana-Jo Carter of Naples, who helped the University of Albany win the America East championship, while Mary Butler of Bangor has wrapped up her sophomore campaign at Brown University and freshman Nia Irving of Fairfield played at Boston University this season.

A modest number of Maine-born players also have found competitive homes and scholarship opportunities at Division II schools in recent years, including six former high school standouts from the state who helped Bentley University of Waltham, Massachusetts, qualify for the 2016 NCAA men’s tournament.

But the vast majority of Pine Tree State standouts who go on to play collegiately do so in Division III, where the competition is just as fierce.

“I think we look at it from a local perspective with regards to the passion of high school basketball whether it’s our own family or a friend’s family or our own kid and say, ‘He’s a really good player, he can play at that next level,’” said Walsh, the head coach at Division III Rhode Island College before taking the UMaine post in 2014.

“People do not realize the level of talent there is at Division III, and just simply how good you have to be.”

The Division III challenge is not confined to a mastery of the sport, given its lack of athletic scholarships.

“It’s got to be a school where they’ve got the academic major they want and where they’ll be able to afford it,” said Walker. “They’ve really got to look around to see what’s the best fit for them.”

And the rewards can be just as great in Division III as at other levels.

Take Shyheim Ulrickson, a 2016 BDN All-Maine choice as a senior guard at Mt. Ararat High School of Topsham. He is a Division III national champion after his freshman season at Babson College in Massachusetts.

Tufts University senior Josie Lee, a former high school star at Cony, participated in four Division III Final Fours for the Jumbos and helped her team reach the national championship game each of the last two years.

“As coaches at the beginning of the year we always tell the team that it’s a privilege to play on any team, it’s not just a right,” said Walker, who guided her Husson team to a first-round victory in this year’s NCAA Division III tournament before the Eagles were ousted by Tufts. “Number one, you’ve got to have the skills to make a team. Then you’ve got to have a good attitude or not a lot of coaches are going to want you, and then you’ve got to be a hard worker.

“You’ve got to have all those pieces so when you take the number of kids who want to play that are out there, you’ve got to feel pretty good about just making a team.”

 


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