March 3, 2013

Steve Solloway: After crash, Maine women weren’t ready to call it a season

ORONO - Four days after the bus ride that became their nightmare, the able-bodied members of the University of Maine's women's basketball team finally played a game. They lost, 86-63, to rival New Hampshire.

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University of Maine junior Ashleigh Roberts hugs teammate Milica Mitrovic, wearing the signed cast from her injury in last week’s bus crash, after the team played the University of New Hampshire in Orono on Saturday.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Liz Wood, another member of the UMaine team, hugs injured Danielle Walczak after the game. “We didn’t want the season to end with (the crash),” said Wood, a freshman from Catlett, Va. “I’m glad we played. I didn’t think about (the crash) for the whole game.” Walczak’s injuries are unrelated to last week’s accident.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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They embraced each other afterward at center court, a few smiling through their tears. A recording of Kelly Clarkson's "What Doesn't Kill You, Makes You Stronger" came over the sound system in the old Memorial Gym.

The young players who had faced their own mortality when their chartered bus careened off Interstate 95 in Massaschusetts on Tuesday night had requested this particular song.

"I'm surprised we were able to get this far," said Richard Barron, the second-year head coach who tried to assist stricken bus driver Jeff Hamlin after he slumped over the steering wheel. "If you had seen this team on the side of the highway (after the crash) with 17 ambulances lined up and helicopters overhead, you would have said our season was over."

(Hamlin, 55, was in stable condition Saturday night at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.)

Barron didn't want to play Saturday's game. Only one player suffered a season-ending injury in the crash. Freshman Milica Mitrovic (Belgrade, Serbia) had a bright lime-green cast encasing her broken wrist. It was covered in signatures.

Barron worried about the bruised and broken emotions that bandages and casts can't fix or hide. Everyone who was on the bus was going through their own euphoria of being alive and a certain sadness or fear when their minds flashed back to those terrible moments when a speeding bus was out of control.

As late as Friday, whether the team should play the next game or not play was still being discussed. Players met with counselors and met with themselves. For a long time, they weren't in agreement.

Maine's record is now 4-24 and 3-12 in America East Conference play. It's one of the youngest NCAA Division I teams in the country. Why not count their blessings and call it a season?

"We didn't want the season to end with (the crash)," said freshman Liz Wood (Catlett, Va.). "I'm glad we played. I didn't think about (the crash) for the whole game."

They had only practiced for two hours over the past seven days. They weren't sleeping well. They were exhausted physically and emotionally and still sore from being tossed around the bus after it went airborne as it crossed the median, from the southbound lanes to northbound. How did it not hit another vehicle? How did the bus remain upright?

"For some of us, playing the game was a coping method," said sophomore Courtney Anderson (Turner). "But not all of us have hit that moment yet when you feel lucky to be alive."

While Friday's emotional discussions took place, the University of New Hampshire waited to hear if it had an opponent to play. Its administration and team were sympathetic to Maine's needs. Not that New Hampshire coaches and players treated the game any differently when it began.

"We're human beings," said Associate Head Coach Mike Roux. "I'm sure it was horrific for them. In the end, it's a basketball game. In the end, we're teachers and educators."

Meaning, games are played to be won while acknowledging it's part of the bigger picture.

"Our first trips up and down the court felt great," said junior Ashleigh Roberts (Wilmington, Del.). "Then it was like we hit a wall."

An emotional and physical wall. New Hampshire played aggressively. Maine players will discover new bruises Sunday morning.

Maine suited eight players for the game and six played. The other two sat on the bench. "Coach's decision," said Barron, who rotated the sixth player into the game to give everyone a few minutes to catch their breath.

(Continued on page 2)

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