Not since the days of Heather Ernest, Kim Corbitt and Melissa Heon have there been higher hopes for the University of Maine women’s basketball team.
The Black Bears will field one of the most experienced teams in all of Division I, led by a nucleus of eight seniors, five returning starters and 14 letterwinners. Also featuring considerable talent and depth, UMaine joins four-time defending champion Albany as one of the favorites in the America East Conference.
“That’s a high level of comfort for us that we know each other,” said senior guard Sophie Weckstrom. “We’ve been a team for almost four years and we still almost have the same team, with a couple of new players. I feel that’s our strength.”
The fact the Black Bears lost only one player off a team that posted a 23-9 record and earned the America East regular-season title also means they are expected to again win consistently and make a run at the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2005.
It’s a dynamic the players have embraced, rather than feared.
“I think it’s just fun,” said senior forward Mikaela Gustafsson. “I don’t think it’s pressure that makes us feel anxious or that we have to do something. It’s really just for ourselves, knowing that we have a very high standard and trying to meet that and exceed that every game and in practice as the season goes on.”
Coach Richard Barron understands that his team must shoulder the pressure of being a front-runner, but he wants to make sure the players maintain a focus on short-term efforts to help achieve long-term success.
“Like [Boston Celtics coach] Brad Stevens says, our only goal is to be better tomorrow than we were today,” Barron said.
“Anything beyond that is kind of putting the cart before the horse.”
As it turns out, the Black Bears have some “horses” with which to pursue completion of the four-year turnaround of the program under Barron.
Leading the charge is senior forward Liz Wood, who averaged 13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.7 steals on her way to an All-America East first-team spot and recognition as the league’s Co-Defensive Player of the Year. She can play inside or on the perimeter both offensively and defensively.
UMaine’s other All-AE performer is guard Sigi Koizar. The junior sparkplug, who is tough to handle off the dribble, led UMaine with 14.3 points per game last season, ranked second in rebounds (4.2) and added 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals.
Weckstrom is another prong in the transition attack and from the 3-point line after posting 7.5 points a year ago, while the post game is spearheaded by seniors Anna Heise (5.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, .524 field-goal percentage) and Gustafsson (5.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg), who as a junior demonstrated considerable growth providing an inside presence.
Gustafsson said the Black Bears are done looking back on last season and what might have been after they lost to Hartford in the conference semifinals. All eyes are looking forward.
“We’re just trying to get in the mindset of putting everything we have out there every day on the floor in practice and trying to make sure that we make the most out of it,” Gustafsson said.
Depth shouldn’t be a concern for UMaine, which features a defensive stopper in senior guard Chantel Charles (3.4 ppg, 2.3 rpg), along with athletic senior forward Bella Swan (3.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg), senior sharpshooter Lauren Bodine (3.0 ppg), who was hampered by injuries last winter, and junior forward Sheraton Jones, who provides defensive intensity and aggressive rebounding.
“Playing time’s earned in practice and these are the players we think give us the best chance to win right now. That’s our No. 1 goal,” Barron said of that group after Sunday’s exhibition win over Stonehill.
Senior guard Milica Mitrovic, sophomore guards Parise Rossignol of Van Buren and Christiana Gerostergiou, sophomore forward Kirsten Johnson, freshman guard Isabel Hernandez Pepe and freshman guard Maddy McVicar of Calais will be working to get into the mix.
“That group does a really good job of being the scout team and giving us a group that knows what their role is and really works hard and prepares us for the games,” Barron added.
The value of UMaine’s extensive experience should come to the forefront in several areas. Perhaps the most important benefits will be visible in the team’s knowledge of and ability to execute its offensive and defensive schemes.
“I think we’re ahead a little bit of where we were at this time last year. We have a better understanding and team chemistry,” Barron said.
The Black Bears, ranked No. 23 in the College Insider Mid-Major poll, also should be able to handle some adversity because of all they have been through. And they may encounter some struggles, given their testy nonconference schedule.
UMaine, which plays nine of its first 11 games on the road, will face the likes of Purdue, North Carolina, Clemson, Minnesota, Northeastern and Harvard.
“Our competition’s going to be very good in the nonconference schedule,” said Barron, who pointed out this season’s challenge is greater than last, when the Bears had many more home games.
They’ll need to call on their depth with a handful of Friday/Sunday game combinations, along with a stretch of five games in seven days in November.
“If you’re ever going to do it, this is the time to do it,” he said.
“We’ve got a lot of people who want the challenge and I think they’re up for it.”
For the seniors in particular, there is a sense of urgency to put it all together this season.
“I think we’re all excited,” Weckstrom said. “We know that this is the last go and that we have to do it now; we don’t have a tomorrow or a next year.”
The Black Bears don’t want to settle for anything less than achieving their ultimate goals.
“Last year we did better and we accomplished a lot of things, but we didn’t do what we wanted to do,” Weckstrom said. “Our goal has been to win the championship every year and last year we got close, but not close enough. I feel like that’s what motivates us every day in practice is to get better and then finish out the season the way we want to.”