The University of Maine women’s basketball team began practicing as a unit for the first time this week under NCAA guidelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NCAA allowed men’s and women’s basketball teams to start practicing on Oct. 14 and to play their first games on Nov. 25.
But UMaine coach Amy Vachon admitted Friday that she is genuinely concerned about the status of their season due to the state’s coronavirus regulations.
UMaine is scheduled to open the season on Nov. 28 against perennial championship contender Mississippi State at the Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge Tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. UConn and Quinnipiac are the other teams in the tournament.
“But, as of now, we can’t play any games. And it’s not an NCAA or a conference [America East] decision,” Vachon said. “We don’t have the testing [supplies] we need to have and we don’t have the clearance to travel. Every other school in our conference does.”
Gov. Janet Mills and state agencies including the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Economic and Community Development have not ruled on whether teams at any level will be allowed to play indoor sports this winter.
The University of Maine System currently prohibits university-sponsored domestic travel beyond state borders, which means the state and the UMS would have to grant travel exemptions to all the winter sports teams.
That puts in jeopardy UMaine’s participation in Connecticut for what is being called “Bubbleville,” a large-scale effort to house several college basketball events that have been relocated and reimagined due to COVID-19.
The Hall of Fame is sponsoring games at Mohegan Sun from Nov. 25 through Dec. 4, providing what it describes as a controlled environment with teams and event staff adhering to tribal, government and NCAA health and safety protocols and testing requirements.
The Black Bears are scheduled to take on Mississippi State on Saturday, Nov. 28, before playing either the University of Connecticut or Quinnipiac on Nov. 29.
In the meantime, UMaine is trying to secure the appropriate testing as required by their conferences, America East and Hockey East.
“It’s really making me anxious along with a lot of people in our department,” Vachon said.
She said UMaine has been following the necessary COVID-19 protocols, including wearing face coverings during practice.
“It’s nobody fault. I’m not blaming anyone,” Vachon said. “I get it. I understand it. COVID is tough and they want to keep our state really safe. We will follow any protocols and contingencies in order to play.”
Vachon said the Black Bears would love to give their fans some games to look forward to this winter. However, there is a 50-person limit on indoor gatherings such as sporting events.
UMaine could have one of its best teams in recent memory with four all-conference players on the roster. They include 2019 America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Blanca Millan, who played only six games last season because of a knee injury.
Guards Dor Saar and Anne Simon and forward Maeve Carroll were All-America East second-team picks during 2019-2020.
Six Black Bears suffered a season-ending injury last season, including forward Fanny Wadling (concussion).
A now-healthy Millan said the five-member freshman class looks promising.
“They are a talented group and they work really, really hard. And they pick things up fast. It’s really exciting,” Millan said.
Vachon pointed out the eight veterans are in the best shape of their careers.
Sophomore guard Anna Kahelin, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 78-66 America East quarterfinal win over Vermont, is ahead of schedule in her recovery.
“There was a while I didn’t think she would play at all this season. But she looks good. She is doing some non-contact work now and she could be back by January,” Vachon said.
Vachon said she expects everyone else to be ready to go against Mississippi State, if the team is allowed to travel to Connecticut.
UMaine has scheduled non-conference games against Providence College and the University of Rhode Island to go with their conference slate, which has not been announced.
The NCAA is allowing teams to play as many as seven non-conference games, but Vachon wants to see the league setup before considering other outside opponents.