PORTLAND, Maine — Kirsten Johnson is the lone senior on this year’s University of Maine women’s basketball team.
And four seasons with the Black Bears have brought numerous challenges for the 6-foot-2 post player from San Diego.
Yet, some of the most important lessons Johnson has learned are not based in playing time or statistical achievements. They were derived instead from many games sitting on the bench and enduring grueling practices.
“It’s hard, coming from being the player who plays every game for 40 minutes, to playing maybe a minute,” Johnson said after UMaine beat Maryland Baltimore County 65-43 in Saturday’s America East quarterfinal at Cross Insurance Arena.
“I think the biggest message is that everyone is important and they bring something to the table,” she added.
Johnson saw limited playing time during her first three years in Orono. This season, she has provided a boost coming off the bench for the Black Bears.
Johnson has appeared in all 30 games, averaging 15.2 minutes while contributing 2.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.0 assist per game while shooting 53 percent from the field.
Those modest numbers reflect hard work and perseverance.
“KJ is a tremendous example of a student-athlete, someone who doesn’t get things immediately,” UMaine head coach Amy Vachon said. “In the world of instant gratification, of coming in as a freshman and wanting to play right away — and not having that, and so you’re going to leave and go somewhere else — KJ, she fought.”
This season, Johnson has provided UMaine with something that it has lacked, a big body in the paint who can rebound, play solid defense, distribute the ball and score when needed.
“She comes in and makes big plays for us: Boxing out, gets big rebounds, hitting open shots, doing as much as possible,” junior teammate Tanesha Sutton said.
Despite all of the challenges, Johnson has learned to appreciate the experience.
She took pride her first three years in serving as a member of the scout team charged with challenging the regular starters in practice. She was inspired as a freshman by a talented and driven junior class — and the grit of a tireless senior who had no quit in her, Courtney Anderson.
“She struggled her four years there and she pushed through it and had a great mindset,” Johnson said of the current UMaine assistant coach. “She pushed us to have a great mindset as well.”
Johnson went into the 2016-2017 season with the hope of making more of an impact on the court as the Black Bears welcomed in a seven-member freshman class. With coach Richard Barron taking a medical leave and Vachon directing the team, UMaine had some ups and downs.
At the end of the season five players, including four of the freshmen, opted to transfer. This season, five more newcomers joined the program.
Johnson has tried to help the underclassmen understand the importance of embracing the challenges that come with making the transition to Division I.
“It comes with patience and trusting yourself,” Johnson said. “If you believe in yourself, that’s the biggest key.”
Sutton, who transferred to UMaine three years ago, said Johnson’s attitude and enthusiasm are contagious.
“She’s a very uplifting person. She comes in very energetic for us, always talking in practice,” Sutton said. “She’s that leader for us, both vocally and on the court.”
Vachon said Johnson has been impactful in many ways.
“There are games we don’t win without her,” Vachon said. “She’s just a great kid, a great teammate. Overall, we’re not in this position without KJ.”
And there’s no other position in which Johnson would rather be. She knows that it won’t be points, rebounds or even victories that will be cherished once her career is over.
“We really enjoy each other’s company and I think that’s the biggest thing you can see on the court,” Johnson said. “We all love each other.”
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