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

click image to enlarge

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.

The team had been hurt by injuries before the crash. Three players -- senior Corinne Wellington (Rochester, N.Y.), sophomore Danielle Walczak (Lee, N.H.) and freshman Anna Heise (Halle, Germany) -- were on crutches when they boarded the Cyr Bus Line coach for the four-hour trip to Boston for a game with Boston University the next day. Junior Ali Nalivaika (Worcester, Mass.) was still rehabbing bad knees.

The four suffered again in the crash. Samantha Wheeler, whose playing career was cut short by concussions and is now the team's Director of Basketball Operations, was unable to attend Saturday's game.

Still unresolved is whether Maine will participate in the America East Conference tournament next week in Albany. Some of Barron's healthy players aren't ready to get back on a bus for the seven-hour trip to Albany, N.Y., site of the first-round games.

Barron played six Saturday. Would he have that many again, or fewer? He doesn't know.

The state of Maine gasped when the news flickered across televisions or appeared on social media late Tuesday. The crash was an experience shared by college athletes everywhere and even the public. Who hasn't taken the bus ride to Logan Airport or Boston's South Station over that same stretch of Interstate?

By Saturday, it seemed to be old news. The announced crowd of 1,204, which counts season ticket holders, was actually closer to fewer than 500. Media coverage was no more than usual.

It was Senior Day. Rachele Burns (Gorham) and Amber Smith (Ipswich, Mass.) assisted the team this season as student managers/coaches. Their playing careers were ended by injury. They were on the bus, too.

Wellington walked slowly to center court on her crutches, a sad smile on her face. She was escorted by a husband and wife who are members of Friends of Maine Women's Basketball. Wellington's family was the community around her  at Maine.

Coaches spend time and money searching for bonding experiences. A group whitewater rafting trip. An Outward Bound session. The Maine women's basketball team bonded in a much different way Tuesday night, although the price may be steep.

Whatever happens next, Barron will make decisions based on what's good for the individual. What's good for the team will come later.

"A lot of (deciding to play Saturday) was selfless thinking of each other. They did it for the seniors. It was therapeutic. At last, it was a move forward in some way."

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

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: Steve Solloway

 

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