ORONO, Maine — There are more athletes, better shooters, improved passers and increased depth on this season’s University of Maine women’s basketball team.
Coach Richard Barron and his staff are working to develop nine first-year players, including six from overseas, and only four veterans as they prepare for Friday’s season opener against Auburn at North Carolina State.
“There’s no question that we’re more talented, we have more depth,” said Barron, whose squad went 8-23 overall, 4-12 in America East, last winter in his first season. “We’re, in essence, starting from scratch. There’s a lot of teaching, a lot of acclimation and a lot of adjustment that goes with playing at this level.”
The influx of promising players means UMaine should have much more flexibility, both in terms of game personnel and how the Bears implement offensive and defensive strategies.
The most important element at this point is making sure all the players appreciate the consistency of effort required to succeed at the Division I level.
“I think they have to learn how to compete in practice, to give maximum effort through all plays, and continue playing hard through mistakes,” Barron said.
“Right now we want the players to be concerned with their attitude and their effort,” he added.
The Bears take their lead from a group of five veterans, although junior post player Ali Nalivaika is out for the season after a third knee surgery.
Experience comes from sophomore point guard Courtney Anderson of Greene (3.7 points, 2.8 assists, 2.8 turnovers per game), junior guard Ashleigh Roberts (7.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg), sophomore forward Danielle Walczak (5.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and senior forward Corinne Wellington (4.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg).
Anderson and Walczak are the only two among that group that started at least 10 games a year ago.
“Me, Corinne, Ash, Danielle and Ali, we’ve learned a lot about being leaders, about how to get 14 of us all on the same page with nine new people,” Anderson said. “It’s been good for us.”
Barron believes his returning players made significant strides last season in terms of their toughness and resolve, along with physicality and consistent effort on the defensive end.
Those traits must be part of the team mentality as UMaine works through the growing pains that are almost sure to surface.
“Inconsistency is something we’re going to have to work through,” Barron said. “I think that will take care of itself over time.”
Despite the realities of rebuilding with so many newcomers in the mix, the Bears will have high, but realistic goals for the season. The staff must help the players maintain their self-confidence in the face of frustration and adversity.
“There’s a fine line between where you set your expectations,” Barron said. “If you set them too high and you’re not consistently meeting your own internal expectations, then you can have a hard time. If you don’t set expectations high enough, then you’re cheating yourself.”
In terms of establishing roles for the players, that is another significant challenge. UMaine has a large number of guards trying to earn playing time.
At the point, Anderson has a year under her belt, but is being pushed by freshmen Sophie Weckstrom and Michal “Izzy” Assaf. All are expected to get playing time initially.
“All of them are capable of shooting the ball well and creating,” Barron said. “No one’s clearly established themselves as head and shoulders above the others.”
Barron explained the Bears have plenty of versatility at guard. Freshmen Liz Wood and Chantel Charles could step in at point guard if UMaine wanted to go with a bigger lineup.
The shooting guard and wing spots also provide Barron with options. Roberts is the proven commodity as a slasher, while freshmen Lauren Bodine is a 3-point threat, and speedy defender Brittany Wells is quick off the dribble.
Wood has exhibited good court awareness and can play a variety of positions, while classmate Milica Mitrovic is a capable scorer who is concentrating on defense. Charles is another stronger guard, but she might contribute in the post as Walczak deals with an undisclosed early-season illness.
“We’ve got a lot of options there [at guard] and there’s no one that I feel like we couldn’t put in a game,” Barron said.
Wellington and Walczak lead a post contingent that includes polished 6-foot-3-inch freshman Anna Heise, who features some perimeter shooting and ballhandling skills, and freshman Mikaela Gustafsson, who has more of a European skill set.
“We’re not very athletic at that position relative to some of the teams that we’ll play, but we’re more skilled,” Barron said. “I think we can stretch the defense more with those players being able to step out away from the basket.”
Barron said if the Bears can limit injuries, they’ll be much deeper and have good versatility with their personnel.
UMaine will be working on its overall development and chemistry amidst a formidable nonconference schedule that will keep the team on the road virtually the whole first semester.
“I think playing the tougher competition will raise the bar,” Barron said. “We can’t get too high or too low off of any one game. We can’t go in and be intimidated, be in awe, make excuses. Regardless of the outcome, we have to compete.”