They study in libraries and locker rooms and hotel lobbies. They study before practices and after games and during midnight bus rides home.

Few women’s basketball teams can keep up with the University of Maine on the court. None of them can compete with the Black Bears in the classroom.

The Black Bears finished the 2020-21 school year with the highest team grade-point average in women’s college basketball, according to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. The team’s collective 3.90 GPA was the nation’s highest figure across NCAA Divisions I, II and III, as well as the NAIA and two-year colleges.

Each year, the coaches’ association posts its “honor roll” of the top programs in the nation. Among Division I teams, the Maine women finished ahead of Youngstown State (3.87), Robert Morris (3.82) and Marist (3.77). No other basketball program in Maine’s conference placed in the top 25. In 2017, the NCAA reported that the average cumulative GPA for women’s Division I basketball teams was 3.09.

“It’s hard enough for any student to get a 3.9, never mind a team, never mind a student-athlete,” coach Amy Vachon said. “I just think that’s a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment.”

Vachon, who led Maine to a 17-3 record and its third America East Conference regular-season title in four years last winter, said the team’s culture of excellence starts during the recruitment process.

“When we recruit players, we talk to them and to their families about our standards,” said Vachon, a former standout guard with the Black Bears and a three-time America East Coach of the Year. “It’s not just about basketball. The expectation is to be the best at everything you can be and to compete in everything you can.”

“We all have really high expectations, and we all push each other just to be better,” said forward Maeve Carroll, 22. “Anything below an A, you’re kind of upset about. That’s just how we are.”

Carroll, like several of her teammates, earned both academic and athletic honors during a 2021 season in which Maine reached its sixth-straight America East Championship game. The Oakton, Virginia, native was named to the all-conference second team for the second time and won a Maine Scholar-Athlete Gold Medal.

Planning ahead can make balancing academic and athletic commitments easier, said Carroll, who will return to the team next season as a graduate student in the university’s global policy program. But she added that sometimes there are no ways to avoid a crunch.

“Everyone’s been in a situation where sometimes you have to finish a paper, you have to do some homework assignment on the bus,” Carroll said. “Everyone gets it done. We find ways.”

Vachon, who compared the workload of Division I athletics to a full-time job, said academic success is paramount in a world that still offers limited professional opportunities for women athletes.

“Basketball will take you far, but you’re going to have to have your education after that,” she said. “Our players aren’t making millions of dollars. It’s not a sustainable career for long term.”

After graduating this spring, guard Kelly Fogarty, 22, has spun her academic success into a job in tech sales in Massachusetts. Fogarty, who broke her own program record in January by making 10 3-point shots in a game, finished her career with a 3.94 GPA and was named the Maine Business School’s Outstanding Undergraduate Student Athlete.

“There were such good resources available,” Fogarty said, citing how coaches and academic advisors help players stay on track academically. “They push us to be our best.”

One such resource is Ann Maxim, who has served as the director of academic support services for student athletes since 2003. Maxim, a former Maine athlete and coach, works directly with the women’s basketball team to help set individualized academic goals, course schedules and support.

But she added that the Black Bears have earned a level of independence and trust uncommon in Division I sports. While many sports teams around the country, including several at the University of Maine, have mandatory study hall periods to ensure that athletes finish their work, Vachon prefers to give her students the flexibility to work on their own schedules.

Rising junior Anna Kahelin, who played in eight games last season after returning from a knee injury, enjoyed the freedom to study in her own apartment. She added that the team doesn’t need a study hall because the players hold themselves accountable.

“We know what we’ve got to do to get good grades, said Kahelin, 22. “Nobody has to tell us to go do our work. We can do it on our own.”

Maxim noted that the culture of academic excellence among University of Maine athletes extends beyond women’s basketball. The school won its third Walter Harrison Academic Cup in June after its student athletes paced the America East with a record 3.62 GPA.

“We like to compete,” Maxim said with laugh. “We compete in everything.”

For athletes used to earning recognition for their on-field successes, the basketball team’s academic accomplishment is both a source of pride and a statement about the group’s values.

“It goes to show what a great program we have here at Maine and what great people we have,” Carroll said. “The next goal is a 3.95.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.