The University of Maine women’s basketball team finished its preseason with an impressive 85-47 exhibition victory over Stonehill College last weekend. A year ago the Skyhawks beat the Black Bears by 19 points.

So that bodes well for Maine’s upcoming season, right?

“Apples to oranges,” said Coach Amy Vachon. “Stonehill is a very different team from a year ago. They went to the Elite Eight (in Division II) and lost six, seven seniors. We’re definitely a different team from a year ago, with a lot of the same kids.”

Those “same kids” open their season at 1 p.m. Saturday against Toledo at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. And expectations for the Black Bears are much higher then a year ago.

With four starters returning, Maine has been picked to finish first in the America East coaches preseason poll. The Black Bears surprised everyone a year ago, winning the league’s regular-season and tournament championships, and advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years.

While having an experienced roster this year helps, Vachon said nothing ever comes easily.

“It’s easier in the sense that our kids know what the expectations are,” she said. “But it’s not easier, being picked to repeat as champions. Our nonconference schedule, I would say, is harder than last year, or just as hard. It’s difficult and the kids have embraced that. But until we really experience what it’s like to be the team that everyone wants to beat … it’s really something else.”

Maine returns two America East preseason all-conference players in junior guard Blanca Millan and senior guard/forward Tanesha Sutton. Sophomore point guard Dor Saar (last year’s league Rookie of the Year), junior forward Fanny Wadling and senior guard Parise Rossignol of Van Buren (last year’s league Sixth Player of the Year) are also back.

“Consistency is going to be huge, and that’s something we weren’t good at last year for the most part,” said Vachon. “We had a couple of kids who you knew what you were going to get every night. Other than that, it was game-by-game.”

Millan, the 6-foot-1 native of Spain, led Maine with 17.5 points a game, and team highs in steals (99) and blocked shots (24). Sutton, 5-10 from Philadelphia, averaged 12.1 points while leading the team with 6.9 rebounds and 94 assists.

“We know that everyone wants to beat us,” said Millan. “So we’re working pretty hard every day, focusing on the little things, which are going to make us better.”

Sutton said she likes that no one on the team is complacent.

“Every time we’re watching film, every time we’re practicing, we’re learning,” she said. “We’re getting better, individually and as a team. Every practice, whether we’re focusing on offense or we’re focusing on defense, we’re making sure we’re making it efficient so that when we start playing games, it just flows.”

Vachon said if you really wanted to take anything from the preseason, look at a scrimmage against Boston College. “We just didn’t play hard,” she said. “And it’s hard when you watch the film, and it’s not really about the execution or the skill level, but it’s about being outworked. That’s one thing our team prides itself on, outworking other teams. And it was an eye-opener for us.”

Vachon is looking for someone from the bench to become a steady contributor, like Rossignol a year ago. There are plenty of candidates: senior guard Maddy McVicar of Calais, sophomore forward Maeve Carroll of Oakton, Virginia, sophomore guard Kelly Fogarty of Walpole, Massachusetts, or junior forward Alex Bolozova from Slovakia and Murray State Junior College.

“We have a group of kids fighting for minutes,” said Vachon. “I think everyone on the bench has shown glimpses of the ability to contribute. It’s the consistency that we need to develop.”

Sutton believes the Black Bears already have the mental toughness to face the challenges ahead.

“Last year we were always proving our point, proving to others what we believed we were,” she said. “Now everyone is coming after us. I don’t think our determination or motivation changes. For us, it’s a desire to go out and compete, and win these games against great teams.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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