Blanca Millan, the reigning America East women’s basketball Player of the Year, returns to the University of Maine women’s basketball team this season. The Black Bears are looking for their third consecutive conference title. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

ORONO — University of Maine senior Blanca Millan spent three months at home this summer in Spain, quietly working on her game without a national team commitment.

The reigning America East women’s basketball Player of the Year returned to Orono with what she said is improved footwork and a more consistent 3-point shot.

An even better Millan would be a big boost for two-time defending conference champ Maine, which opened practice Tuesday afternoon.

Eleven players return from a team that went 25-8 last season, including 15-1 in conference play. Four newcomers – freshmen guard Anne Simon, guard Anna Kahelin, forward Abbe Laurence, and graduate transfer Gadson Lefft, a forward who played the last three seasons at Delaware – have already received a crash course in the Black Bears’ high expectations.

“We let them know to do it a third time in a row is very, very hard. We have to focus every day in practice. Never look back, but know we belong here,” Millan said.

Added junior point guard Dor Saar: “There is always pressure from outside, but we as a team know we are capable of it. It’s not easy to win back-to-back and get the third one in a row, but I think we’re capable of it.”

The Black Bears open play with a pair of exhibition games at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor – Oct. 27 against Division II Stonehill and Nov. 3 against McGill University of Montreal. Maine opens the regular season Nov. 8 at Delaware and plays its first regular-season home game Nov. 17 against Boston University.

Coach Amy Vachon, an Augusta native, said the first day of practice isn’t a get-to-know-the-team situation. That’s already occurred.

“It’s a little different now, because we have had full-team workouts. It’s not like this is the first time the team has been together. It is the first day of practice where you can have them longer periods of time,” Vachon said.

Maine still needs to replace two starters in Parise Rossignol, who is an assistant coach, and Tanesha Sutton.

Both players earned all-conference selections last season, and Sutton’s contributions went beyond what appeared in the box score. Sutton was a glue player, often doing the little gritty things that help a team win.

“You’re not going to find another Tanesha just off the street anywhere. She was a special one. I think the opportunity will be there for a lot of different players,” Vachon said. “We have players who have been on the team and haven’t gotten a lot of playing time, but have been on that championship runs the last few years. We have four new kids who are excited to be here and are motivated to do really good things. I really like our team.”

Junior forward Maeve Carroll is a candidate to move into the starting lineup after making nine starts in place of an injured Fanny Wadling last season.

“With Tanesha leaving, there’s a lot of room for opportunity. She’s big shoes to fill. I think there’s good opportunity for me, and I’ve been working hard,” Carroll said. “I knew I had to get stronger, and I had to work on my speed. I think when I got back to campus this year, I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

Point guard Saar said she’s been working with newcomers and returning teammates alike to find a rhythm.

“I think each of us can do a little more. There’s room to step up, but I feel like if each of us does a little bit more, we can be in good shape,” Saar, also an all-America East selection last season, said. “I feel like the chemistry is getting better.”

Once again, the Black Bears will be tested by a difficult non-conference schedule, which includes North Carolina State (Nov. 19), which sank the Black Bears in the first round of the NCAA tournament in March. Maine also will face Arizona State, and possibly Purdue, at the Golf Coast Showcase in Estero, Florida the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Millan welcomes the challenges, as well as the favorite status Maine will carry into America East play when the conference schedule begins Jan. 2 at the Cross Center against Hartford, the conference runner-up to the Black Bears each of the last two seasons.

“New year, new group. We have four newcomers, but it’s basically the same group and I’ve been through a lot with them,” Millan said. “Two (America East) championships. There’s a definitely a lot of experience, so I’m excited to see what this year has for us.”

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