Imagine taking a final exam, but all the classes leading up to it were canceled. Good luck.

That’s essentially where Gabrielle Wener was heading into this women’s basketball season, her first with Division I Monmouth University. The pandemic wiped out summer sessions for the team, forcing the newcomers to play catch-up, and fast.

“It’s definitely been crazy, it’s been very intense,” she said. “My freshman class was definitely thrown into this. … We’ve had to take on a lot in a short amount of time.”

If the season opener were any indication, Wener is handling the learning curve. The former Messalonskee standout started in Monmouth’s first game, playing 23 minutes in the Hawks’ 82-38 loss to Rutgers on Friday. Wener scored seven points on 2-of-4 shooting, both 3-pointers, while notching two rebounds and a team-high three assists.

“My coaches were able to trust in my play, and I was able to execute,” she said. “I had a feeling (I’d start), but (coach Jody Craig) didn’t say anything directly to me, so I didn’t really get the confirmation until I looked on the board and I saw my name as a starter. That was really cool, though.”

Maine players making an impact in Division I women’s basketball has become something of a trend. Gorham’s Mackenzie Holmes has become a core player for No. 13 Indiana, earning Big Ten All-Freshman recognition last year and netting a team-high 26 points in the Hoosiers’ opener last Wednesday.

Greely’s Anna DeWolfe started last year as a freshman for Fordham and had a team-high 25 points in the Rams’ opener Wednesday, and Boothbay’s Faith Blethen likewise started in her first year at George Washington and has started all three games for the Colonials this season. Sanford’s Paige Cote is the first player off the bench as a freshman for the University of New Hampshire, and Gorham’s Emily Esposito will be a redshirt junior at Boston University after playing all 32 games in her freshman year at Villanova.

“I feel like Maine is very underrated,” Wener said. “There’s a lot of great talent in Maine. Sometimes I think it’s hard to get that exposure.”

Wener got it with her time at both Messalonskee and the Firecrackers AAU team, but she still had work to do handling the challenges of the Division I level — particularly the mental side of the sport.

“There are countless plays,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn, and figure out (with) new habits you need to get into and old habits you need to break, in order to be quicker and more effective at this level.”

As both a forward and a guard, Wener has had to learn all those plays, and from a variety of angles.

“With every single set play, I have to learn it in the 2 spot, the 3 spot and the 4 spot,” she said. “If we have five plays, let’s say, I have to learn it basically in 15 total positions.”

Wener’s coaches kept reinforcing that she was on the right track, however, and rewarded her with the start against Rutgers, a program that has made 12 of the last 17 NCAA tournaments.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” she said. “I expected to have the butterflies, but coaches definitely helped us prepare, and therefore I didn’t feel like I needed to be nervous.”

Indiana sophomore forward Mackenzie Holmes shields off an Eastern Kentucky defender during a Nov. 25 game at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana. Holmes, a Gorham graduate, starts for the 13th-ranked Hoosiers. Photo provided by Indiana University athletics

She proved it on the court, knocking down the first two shots she took, a pair of threes from the left corner.

“I was happy with how I played,” she said. “I definitely know I can do so much more and help the team. But that was just the start.”

Wener’s moment was part of a big week for the state’s basketball alumni. Holmes made an impressive splash in the Hoosiers’ opening 100-51 victory over Eastern Kentucky, showing a step forward that she’s taken after averaging 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds as a freshman.

“I feel like I have more experience under my belt going into this year, so I honestly feel more comfortable and a lot more confident for sure,” she said. “…The second year has been a lot better, because there’s less newness to it, so I’m more focused on getting better every day, rather than just trying to figure out how college even works.”

Holmes credited her increased production to both improved conditioning and hours in the gym.

“I really don’t do anything special,” she said. “Whether it’s just coming in an extra 30 minutes to work on specific shots or doing extra conditioning or whatever that looks like, I just do it consistently. I think that’s the biggest part.”

Holmes said she hasn’t been swept up in her ability to make a big impact so early for a Big Ten program.

George Washington University sophomore forward Faith Blethen keeps her eyes on the ball behind Old Dominion guard Victoria Morris during a Nov. 28 game in Washington, D.C. Blethen, a Boothbay graduate, has started all three games for the Colonials. Photo provided by William Atkins/George Washington athletics

“Having those teammates to look for me in the post has given me the opportunity to show what I’ve been working on,” she said. “I think last year for sure, I surprised myself, and then I realized what I was capable of. It just has given me more of a hunger to keep getting better.”

After starting as a freshman, Blethen said she knows she’s going to be looked to for more this season.

“I wouldn’t say that pressure was increased, I would say that expectations were increased,” said Blethen, who’s averaging 7.7 points and 5.3 rebounds this season. “Just being more of an offensive threat, especially from the 3-point line, trusting my shot more. And then, from a defensive perspective, getting on the boards more, rebounding and just being more aggressive.”

Like Wener, Blethen said the mental part of the sport was a challenge at first, and an area where she’s had an easier time in her second season.

“I feel like everyone always talks about the physicality increasing,” Blethen said, “…but I think still, the No. 1 thing that has been the biggest adjustment has been the mental part of the game. The basketball IQ portion of it, because the game is played so much faster. Even if physically you can play faster, you need to mentally be able to keep up with the pace of the game. There’s just a lot that goes on.”

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