PORTLAND – Cindy Blodgett was in town Friday for a Portland Rotary luncheon. Before the University of Maine women’s basketball coach took the microphone to talk and answer questions, I was able to pitch mine.

What was her reaction to Kayla Burchill’s decision to commit to Vermont, joining Nicole Taylor? Two high-profile schoolgirl players, one from Deering, the other from York, are leaving their home state to play for an America East rival.

Blodgett flashed a smile instead of a glare. Why don’t I talk to the girls who have committed to play at Maine, she asked. Why don’t I ask Rebecca Knight (McAuley star) or the other recruits why they were so passionate in choosing Maine?

Point made.

Blodgett is in the final year of a four-year contract. She has yet to produce a winning team, giving her critics more reason to argue that her legacy will be one of Maine’s greatest basketball players, but not one of its successful coaches.

“I realize we are measured by wins and losses,” she said later to the Rotarians. “I’m not going to run from that. We’re improving daily but we’re not quite there yet. It’s going to be really exciting when we take that next step.”

She didn’t say when and unlike the optimism that filled the day she was hired, made no promises of a return this season or next to the NCAA tournament.

When Blodgett played for Joanne McCallie more than 10 years ago, the women’s team was the talk of the state. Not now. The comparisons are painful.

Blodgett understands. Her critics acknowledge her work ethic but may not appreciate her intelligence and resolve. This woman has spine.

She won’t play the carnival barker, luring teenage players with false promises. She won’t recruit talent she may later have to baby-sit. She believes character has to go hand-in-hand with talent. She has to sense a recruit’s passion to play for Maine.

If Burchill, for instance, was torn between Vermont and Maine, Blodgett would have worked harder to close the deal. Instead, Blodgett believed Burchill’s heart was always in Burlington.

Blodgett can promise the challenge of becoming a winning program again, not the glory of continuing a run of 20-win seasons.

She can promise the future hot-house excitement of playing in the renovated Memorial Gym. But work on The Pit isn’t expected to begin until after the 2010-11 season.

“The biggest challenge in recruiting is getting them to campus,” Blodgett told her audience.

“I believe what we have at the University of Maine is not a difficult sell. I call people and they ask, ‘Where is Maine?’ “

In fact, it was Blodgett the player who put Maine on the basketball map.

Her audience of dozens of members of this service organization smiled back. It was a larger group than usual and her directness wowed most of them.

She was asked of the difference being a player and now a coach. “As a coach, your games are every day in practice. I think it is more rewarding being on the sideline. As a player it’s all about the passing, the shooting, the defense that you control.”

What coaches became her models? Her own, starting with the coach who plucked her out of third grade in Clinton, asking if she’d join his middle-school team.

What was that like? “I certainly got hit extra hard. I got pushed against a locker after a game. It was a challenge.”

The first challenge came a bit earlier. At 8 years old she wanted to play basketball for a team in the local Police Athletic League. Boys only, she was told.

“I was crushed,” Blodgett told the Rotarians. “My father didn’t say anything, but within a week he put a pole up in our driveway and I had a hoop. No one was taking my pole down.”

She remembers her father telling her there will be plenty of people in her life putting roadblocks in front of her. It was up to her to move past them.

“I love being the underdog. I love the naysayers. Life is supposed to be a challenge.”

In the audience, Kristin Ross, a sophomore basketball player at Gorham High, listened with her father, Bill. Afterward, father and daughter stayed to talk with Blodgett.

Had Blodgett made an impression?

Yes.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]