Seventeen victories by the University of Maine women’s basketball team in a turnaround season buys what, exactly?
More attention or more apathy? More excitement or more skepticism?
There are comeback of the year awards for individual players in sports. A round of applause, a visible show of appreciation.
The Maine women won 13 more games than last season, rode their first winning record in a decade to a fourth seed in the America East tournament and finally earned respect from opponents. Maine didn’t go from worst to first but the improvement was dramatic.
Did anyone notice?
“I don’t know. I guess people are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” said Amy Vachon, the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. “I’ve always been able to sell Maine but yes, it’s more fun picking up the phone to call a recruit after the season we just had.”
I turned to Vachon on Thursday because she’s a child of Maine. She grew up in Augusta and played for her father at Cony High. She played for Joanne McCallie at Maine. She was the head coach at McAuley High in Portland before Richard Barron beckoned her back to Orono to be part of his staff.
She understands Maine and Mainers who don’t jump on bandwagons easily. Neither do they jump off quickly.
Vachon is one of the things that’s good about Maine women’s basketball. She also represents what’s missing: a bigger presence of Mainers on the state’s only NCAA Division I women’s basketball team. Courtney Anderson from Greene and Rachele Burns from Gorham were the only in-state players running onto the court for pregame warm-ups this year.
The home states or nationalities of Maine players shouldn’t matter but does. Away from the interstate corridors that run north-south, Maine looks at itself as a state of neighbors. So Barron encouraged players to be neighborly when they visited the communities around Orono.
He followed the lead of previous Maine coaches, particularly McCallie, and made his players accessible to the fans who bought tickets to home games at the new Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
After each game, Barron took the microphone and spoke to the crowd, thanking them and saying no matter how well his women played that night, they’d play better in the next game.
After victories, youngsters ran out of the stands to do the Electric Slide dance steps with the players and yes, Barron and his assistant coaches. Hokey? Not really. But you had to be at the Cross Center to understand.
Attendance at Maine women’s games increased an average of about 400 fans a game. Vachon looked around on game nights and saw fans she hadn’t seen in years. She heard them say they’re buying season tickets for next year.
“If you’re reading about the games in the newspaper you’re not getting how much fun it is to come to the games,” said Vachon. “People in southern Maine aren’t driving two hours north to watch.”
They do for Maine hockey but of course that’s a different experience. The disconnect between basketball watchers in Cumberland and York counties, and the state’s flagship campus is very real. Barron might be coaching at the University of Lands End.
When Maine played Fairfield in southern Connecticut last Sunday in the quarterfinals of the pay-to-play Women’s Basketball Invitational, maybe two dozen Black Bear fans watched.
For Maine coaches and fans, bodies in the grandstand didn’t matter. That the WBI was a minor tournament didn’t matter. The Black Bears were playing basketball later in March. They lost 63-50 to finish the season at 17-15.
Vachon went back to her campus office to make phone calls and work social media to spread the news that Orono is a place for real hopes.
“When I played in high school, there were a lot of Maine girls on the Maine team. Everyone wanted to play at Maine. For whatever reason that hasn’t been the case at Maine. We need to understand how things have changed.”
And how perceptions can change again. The Maine women no longer played not to lose by 20 points. They played to win.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: