GORHAM — The bruises are still visible on Nicole Garland’s slender upper arms, three days after her last basketball game. Still purplish, with a bit of golden brown indicating the healing has started.

Garland doesn’t know how or exactly when she got elbowed or whacked by a forearm. She doesn’t care.

She and her University of Southern Maine teammates play Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament. That’s what matters most. Whoever hit her was part of a losing team. Garland got her revenge, so to speak.

Tough kid, this one. But then, Coach Gary Fifield doesn’t recruit the weak of heart. Not when the goal, year after year, is to win that elusive national championship. USM has been to the NCAA tournament 26 times in the past 28 years. Fifield teams were national runners-up in 1998, 2000 and 2006.

That’s why Garland bought what Fifield was selling when she played for Deering High and he came to watch. She was a fan of USM teams since she was a young girl. Not that every high school player could see themselves in a program that produced 20-win seasons year after year.

“The expectations are always high here,” said Garland, talking in Hill Gymnasium before practice. “We feel successful but winning a (Little East Conference) championship is not satisfying enough. I had options (to go elsewhere to college) but I liked Coach Fifield’s coaching style.

“He’s very driven, very intense, very knowledgeable. You have to be a strong-minded person to play for him.” Of course, playing for former Deering coach Mike D’Andrea, another intense individual, helped prepare her.

USM carries a 27-1 record into the NCAA tournament and is ranked eighth nationally by d3hoops.com. Fifield was named Little East Conference Coach of the Year for the 14th time in 25 seasons, sharing the recognition this year with Kim Rybczyk of Western Connecticut State, the only team to defeat USM.

Three of his players – Garland, Haley Jordan of Falmouth and Jordan Grant of Concord, N.H. — were named to the conference’s first team. Rebecca Knight, a sophomore from Alfred, made second team. More talent on the bench waits for their playing time.

“We have such good chemistry,” said Garland. “We seemed to click right away.”

Grant and Knight were transfers, Grant from Franklin Pierce, a Division II school in New Hampshire, and Knight from the University of Maine. Their transitions were seamless.

Garland is a 5-foot-7 shooting guard with the third-best 3-point shooting percentage (45.7 percent) in the country. The USM career record for 3-pointers (219) belongs to her. So does the single-season record of 86.

She has an assassin’s mindset, knowing when her 3-point shots can rob an opponent of its hope. Just don’t mistake her for a diva. Her boat sails smooth waters.

Garland is a fifth-year player. A broken bone in her foot cost her a whole season. “It wasn’t fun being on the sideline. I learned a lot about myself as a person and as a player. I feel like the mother of the team. When I graduated from high school, some of my teammates were leaving middle school.”

That’s funny. She could pass for a high school junior until she speaks. The light-hearted maturity in her voice gives her away. She has been named a team captain for three seasons, which is unusual. On Fifield teams there is no lack of candidates.

Ask her about the weight of expectations at USM, knowing former Fifield players from 10 and 20 years ago are watching from the bleachers behind the team bench. “I wouldn’t use the word daunting,” said Garland. “Many of them have become my friends.

“We want to impress them. We want them to know we do take pride in the program.”

In this program, the torch is passed from one team to the next. The missing piece to the Fifield years is the national title. That weight is on the shoulders of the former players who hurt from the knowledge they didn’t deliver. They’ll watch Garland and her teammates, hoping this season will be the one when they’re released from a kind of purgatory.

Garland, the fifth-year player, understands. She can’t promise or predict. All she and her teammates can do Friday is take the first step on the final road.


Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway