ORONO, Maine — Liz Wood arrived at the University of Maine as part of an unprecedented, nine-member freshman class on the women’s basketball team.
In the last four years, that talented and diverse group has helped transform the Black Bears into an America East championship contender.
It is Wood who has been the unquestioned leader during the resurgence by coach Richard Barron’s team, which takes a 24-7 record into the America East quarterfinal against New Hampshire at noon Saturday at the Events Center in Vestal, New York.
“Very early on we felt like she exhibited a level of maturity and leadership skills — and certainly work ethic, discipline — that we wanted as part of our culture here with the program,” Barron said of the 5-foot-10 forward from Catlett, Virginia.
UMaine’s captain has been a perennial all-conference player, an exemplary student and an influential representative of the team and the university in extracurricular activities.
“Liz is a model student-athlete in showing what our conference’s three pillars of academics, athletics and leadership are all about,” said America East Conference Commissioner Amy Huchthausen.
“It’s been a true pleasure to work with her and watch her grow into such an extraordinary person during her career,” she added.
Wood has enjoyed a strong senior season during which she is averaging 9.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, three assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 44 percent. In league play, she ranks in the top 12 in seven categories, including third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.9) and rebounds (7.6 rpg) and fourth in steals (2.3 spg).
Wood’s scoring average is the lowest of her career. She said it has nothing to do with a preseason injury to her left knee that required surgery. She logged 34.6 minutes per game in conference games.
“This year hasn’t been as big statistically as maybe I had expected or as other people had expected, but we’re tied for first in the conference, we have a very successful team, and we have a great shot in the tournament,” said Wood, who added that her primary focus is defense.
Barron said the increased offensive production of Mikaela Gustafsson, Bella Swan and Sigi Koizar have affected Wood’s offensive production.
“She’s certainly capable of [scoring more], but I think it’s really more a reflection of how she’s brought her teammates up to her level rather than she’s stepped back in any way,” Barron said, also pointing out teams’ efforts to key defensively on Wood.
Wood already has played more games (123) than any player in UMaine history and will finish her career ranked among the program’s career leaders in points (seventh, 1,424), rebounds (sixth, 873), assists (eighth, 357) and steals (274).
“What she does for us on the court and how much better everybody else plays when she’s out there, it’s pretty obvious that she’s a tremendous player,” Barron said.
Face of the program
Wood has excelled in everything she has undertaken at UMaine.
She was named the America East Co-Rookie of the Year in 2013, earned all-conference, second-team honors as a sophomore, then was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team choice last season.
She has been pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor while enrolled in UMaine’s Honors College, where she holds nearly a 4.0 grade point average in biology and pre-medical studies. On Thursday she was named a CoSIDA Division I Academic All-American and last year, she earned the “M” Club Dean Smith Award given to UMaine’s top female and male student-athletes.
Wood’s passion for learning was fostered by her parents, especially her mom, Jane Fallgren.
“She really instilled a great work ethic in me when it comes to school,” Wood said. “I just became accustomed to that, and it’s what I began to expect of myself.”
Balancing Division I basketball and a challenging course load, spare time has been limited, but Wood has been active with UMaine’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, which serves as a liaison between student-athletes and athletics administration.
She became UMaine’s SAAC president and is America East’s SAAC representative.
Wood is often asked to speak to local schoolchildren and community groups, representing women’s basketball and UMaine athletics. It is a role that did not come naturally to her.
Yet even as a freshman, Wood’s classmates and coaches sensed that she was equipped to shoulder leadership responsibilities.
“When I came here I was shy, I didn’t want to talk in front of people. I wasn’t super confident in stepping outside of my comfort zone,” Wood said.
As her successes continued and her confidence grew, Wood realized that she owed it to everyone who had fostered her development to step up.
“If I have the opportunity the be the face of UMaine women’s basketball or UMaine, a program that’s given me so much, then I want to do everything I can just to help endorse this great university and try to raise publicity about the great things that we’re doing,” she said.
Paging Dr. Wood
Wood grew up in Catlett, a town of 300 people located 48 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
“It’s like a tack shop and a stop sign,” Wood said in describing her hometown.
Through the support and encouragement of her dad, Larry, her mother and her younger sister Abigail, she learned to embrace opportunities.
“They told me there’s no limit on what I could do. I really believe that,” Wood said.
“I owe my parents a lot, and I definitely don’t say it enough,” she said.
Wood plans to apply to medical school in 2017 and is interested in orthopedics, but is keeping an open mind about what discipline to pursue. After graduation, she hopes to have the chance to play basketball professionally in Europe.
She has made a lasting impression during her time at UMaine.
“I think that she’s a good spokesperson and face for our league,” said Binghamton University coach Linda Cimino. “She’s involved in stuff off the court, which earns the respect of your opponents.”
Barron said Wood’s efforts are always geared toward the success of the team, without regard for her personal achievements.
“It’s a great combination: Someone who achieves at such a high level but does it with such humility and such grace,” Barron said. “That makes everybody want to be more like her and not resent her.”
Wood, who with her teammates has her sights set on an America East championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament, marvels at her development while at UMaine.
“Being a student-athlete here has really challenged me, and it wasn’t always comfortable, but I’ve definitely grown, and it’s definitely helped me see the possibilities of experiences that I can expose myself to,” she said.