October 24, 2013

Steve Solloway: It’s always basketball time at UMaine

The men’s and women’s teams meet the media as they get ready for their seasons.

BANGOR — Dimitry Akanda-Coronel spent his summer vacation playing for Cape Verde’s national team in the FIBA African Championship. It wasn’t exactly a time for rest and recreation.

Cape Verde was overlooked before the tournament began. With Coronel, a University of Maine sophomore, scoring key baskets, Cape Verde lost to Cameroon in the quarterfinals and finished sixth out of 16 teams. Coronel got back to campus two days after classes started and took a deep breath.

What, you thought college athletes on scholarship took time off from their sports? Not likely.

Wednesday was media day for the UMaine men’s and women’s teams. It was an afternoon of practice, getting official photos taken, and talking to people with microphones and notebooks. Coronel hustled from one spot to another in the new Cross Center, where Maine will play its home games this season.

The African championships were played in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan, the epicenter of recent conflict in a civil war. “Parts of the city were a mess,” said Coronel, who went to East Boston High and prepped at Tabor Academy. “I felt safe.”

Wednesday, any talk of the upcoming seasons was punctuated with hope. Both the men and the women were picked by fellow members of the America East Conference to finish near the bottom of the standings.

The poll results rolled off the backs of Maine players. Both teams are young. Both will embrace their underdog status.

Individual players know what they did this summer.

“I worked on my game,” said Xavier Pollard, a junior guard from the Bronx, N.Y., and an elder statesman on a men’s team with no seniors. Graduation and transfers out of the program cut deeply.

“I need to be a leader. I need to be better. My parents said I didn’t need to find a summer job.” Basketball was his job even if it didn’t put a paycheck in his pocket.

Shaun Lawton, his University of Maine sophomore teammate, went home to Harlem for the summer and played in the legendary Rucker Park and Dyckman basketball tournaments. He played against men who tested his game and him.

Lawton hung out with friends but he was never removed from basketball.

Ashleigh Roberts, one of the three seniors on the women’s team, went home to Wilmington, Del. She picked up odd hours at a local country club, working as a hostess. She visited her mother’s family on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

“It was my first visit. It was far away from the tourist areas. I saw poverty.

“Did I get away from basketball? No. If I didn’t have a basketball in my hands I was thinking basketball. You can’t not think about it.”

Her teammates sat in seats behind her, waiting their turn to be photographed or interviewed. “I’m a senior and this is the first time I can look around and see familiar faces,” said Roberts. “That makes me feel good.”

Meaning, the Maine women feel like family. They scattered in a dozen different directions after spring semester ended but didn’t forget about each other.

Lauren Bodine left Maine last May for her home in Kentucky, nursing a surgically repaired shoulder. The sophomore guard counted the days to June 1, when she was permitted to pick up a basketball again. She got a job at WalMart, as a cashier. Most of her free time was spent on a basketball court.

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