Ashleigh Roberts doesn’t replay in her mind the night in February 2013 when the charter bus carrying the University of Maine women’s basketball team veered across six lanes of Interstate 95 and crashed into a stand of trees.
The senior guard and team leader is too busy. Being part of the transformation of a team that has rediscovered how to win consistently is much more rewarding.
“Do I think about the bus crash? No,” said Roberts. “Only when the media come around and ask the questions. We’re not that team this year.”
The Maine women will play Hartford on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the America East Conference tournament. Maine finished fourth in the regular-season standings, its highest ranking in nearly 10 years. The Black Bears have won 16 games, far exceeding last season’s record of 4-26 and matching their total wins for the previous three seasons.
Did they need the trauma of the bus crash for a shared experience to bring them closer? “We were getting better,” said Roberts. “We didn’t need a bus crash to make that happen.”
Police and rescue personnel at the scene on Feb. 25, 2013, called the circumstances and the outcome miraculous. It was early evening on a weeknight on a stretch of I-95 near Georgetown, Mass., 30 miles north of Boston. Maine was traveling to play Boston University. Rush hour was mostly over for commuters heading north to homes on Massachusetts’ North Shore, New Hampshire and southern Maine.
Inside the Cyr Bus Lines motorcoach, coaches and players were startled by the sudden change of direction. They saw the headlights of approaching vehicles and wondered if those vehicles were close enough to hit the bus broadside where they were seated.
If they looked to the front of the bus, they could see coach Richard Barron wrestling with the steering wheel and the disabled bus driver.
There were no collisions until the bus hit a small tree and remained upright. Steve Abbott, then the university’s athletic director, was not on the bus but later looked at the scene in daylight.
“The bus was like a football going through the goal posts for a field goal,” Abbott said Thursday. “It was incredible that it didn’t hit one of the big trees.”
Wednesday afternoon, Roberts, her teammates and coaches got back on a Cyr motorcoach, as they have all season. This time it was taking them from Orono to Albany, N.Y., a seven-hour drive away.
Eleven of the 14 players on this year’s team were in the 2013 crash. Other than Milica Mitrovic’s broken hand and several concussions suffered by staff members, the only injuries were cuts and bruises. Harder to heal was the emotional trauma and the image of something that had been wrenched out of their hands. Athletes function best when they have control of their lives.
The players voted not to get back on a bus and play in the conference tournament in Albany. It was not a unanimous vote. “We respected everyone’s decision and supported them,” said Liz Wood, a sophomore from Catlett, Va., who is Maine’s second-leading scorer behind Roberts. Wood was one of eight freshmen on last year’s team.
Taking her cue from Roberts, Wood said she thinks of the crash only when asked. She believes the accident itself didn’t turn around Maine’s fortunes and a long run of losing seasons. On the other hand, Maine is a melting pot of a team. Six freshmen and sophomores are from Europe. The bus crash was their shared experience. They leaned even more on their teammates, offering and accepting support.
Some schools spend big money to send their teams to Outward Bound experiences or similar teamwork and character-building exercises. The Maine women got their experience for free.
“We weren’t there on the bus with them,” said Abbott, speaking for the university family that rushed to support the players and coaches. “We couldn’t know the obvious trauma they experienced. Now they have the absolute willingness to do anything for each other. I look at the example of Courtney Anderson (a junior guard from Greene). I’ve never seen someone so determined to keep this team together.”
Abbott left campus near the end of the fall semester to return to his former position as chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. He watches games online when he can. He listens to radio broadcasts. If all fails, his father, former Maine football coach and athletic director Walt Abbott, texts him updates.
Samantha Wheeler was on the bus that night. She’s the former star player from New Hampshire whose career was shortened by concussions. Now, she’s the director of basketball operations.
She suffered her fourth concussion in the crash. “I think about it a lot and I know the players do. But it’s their job to put it behind them and that’s what they’re doing.
“They had their ‘aha!’ moment this summer,” she said. “Everything clicked, what (Barron and the assistant coaches) have been telling them. They understand how much work they needed to do.”
And if the bus crash added urgency to their lives, all the better.
The Maine women were the darlings of the state in the decades when Rachel Bouchard, Cindy Blodgett, Amy Vachon and Heather Ernest pulled on their blue-and-white Maine Black Bears uniforms. From Kittery to Fort Kent, their first names sufficed. Everyone knew who Rachel and Cindy and Amy and Heather were.
Those days went away when Ernest graduated in 2005, the year Maine last appeared in the NCAA tournament.
It doesn’t matter that a bus accident first caught the attention of fans who hadn’t paid much attention to the program in recent years. “It’s how we’ve played since that’s important,” said Roberts, of Wilmington, Del.
She’s in a pinch-me moment. Her college career ends with the next defeat.
But she won’t think about that. “I see a little swagger on the team,” she said. “We know we can win, and for three years we didn’t.”
Barron talks about the process. He arrived three years ago and the turnaround has been difficult. He can see the future more clearly. Most of this year’s team will return.
The Cyr Bus Line transports all of the university’s teams, and has done so for years. On Thursday, General Manager Rick Soules talked about bus driver Jeff Hamlin’s recovery – he suffered injuries that left him hospitalized for two months, and has not returned to driving a motorcoach.
“We don’t single out any of the teams,” said Soules. “But I’ll admit we’re cheering a little more for the Maine women’s basketball team.”
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: