The University of Maine women’s basketball team is ready to go. The players have been working out in small groups since late summer and are practicing for a season that could begin Nov. 28 with a tough non-conference game against Mississippi State at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut.
But a lot will have to happen before the Black Bears play a basketball game during a pandemic.
First, the team will need to meet COVID-19 testing requirements as set forth by the NCAA. Then, it will need an exemption from state government officials that would allow the team to travel out of state for contests.
The NCAA announced last month that the Division I basketball season would start Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving. The Black Bears are scheduled to open the season three days later in the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Challenge tournament, which will also feature Mississippi State, Connecticut and Quinnipiac.
While the tournament features two Division I powerhouses in Mississippi State and UConn, it’s far from certain the games will be played.
“It’s something that’s really making me anxious, and a lot of people in our department (anxious),” head coach Amy Vachon said Friday afternoon in a Zoom call with media. “We’re ready to go. Our athletic department is ready to go. Our girls have been practicing since August. The NCAA has said this is the start date. Our conference is ready to go… So we’re ready, but we need help.”
The NCAA’s return-to-basketball guidelines recommend testing of all team personnel three times a week, on non-consecutive days. Along with testing, UMaine will need Gov. Janet Mills to give winter sports teams an exemption that would allow them to travel out of state for games, as well as host out-of-state opponents.
“We are really in a tough spot right now. If that were to happen, if weren’t able to travel, that’d be a really hard pill to swallow. To see everyone else in the (America East) conference playing, and most teams in the country playing and we’re not, that would be really tough. We’re very positive, but we definitely need help. There’s no doubt about it,” Vachon said.
Fifth-year senior guard Blanca Millan, the America East Player of the Year in 2019, returned after missing most of last season to a knee injury. Millan said the entire team is excited to get going, even while practicing in masks.
“You get used to it. You kind of forget about (the mask). We’ve been doing it for two or three months now,” Millan said. “We practice every day as if we’re playing tomorrow.”
The good news for the Black Bears is that they have more than a month for the process to play out. America East, of which Maine is a member, has yet to announce plans for conference competition.
“We can’t play right now. We can’t. That’s not a conference decision. We don’t have the testing and we don’t have the clearance to travel,” Vachon said. “Every other school in our conference has it. It hasn’t been easy. Vermont really had to go to bat to get that clearance from the Governor (Phil Scott) and the state.”
Vachon said she understands the focus on public health safety in the state. However, she said playing games could provide an outlet for fans during these tough times. The UMaine women’s basketball roster features players from seven countries and six states.
“They love the state of Maine, and they love to represent that state of Maine. I think we do a pretty good job of that. I’m hoping we have that approval Nov. 28,” Vachon said.
America East conference officials are working to finalize a league basketball schedule. Along with the tournament at Mohegan Sun, the UMaine women have non-conference games set against Rhode Island and Providence.
• • •
The Black Bears ended last season riding a 10-game winning streak and were set to play at Stony Brook in the America East championship game before it was cancelled at the onset of the pandemic. Maine returns eight players, including seven who started at least one game last season, and fifth-year forward Fanny Wadling, who missed the entire season after suffering an injury in a preseason exhibition game.
Millan is back after her knee injury in an early season loss to Arizona State. Sophomore forward Anna Kahelin suffered a knee injury in the final minute of Maine’s conference quarterfinal victory over Vermont on March 8, and could return to play in January, Vachon said.
The typical preseason team bonding has been harder than usual, Vachon said, but the team’s five freshmen — Caroline Bornemann, Katie White, Alba Orois, Olivia Rockwood and Mt. Blue graduate Lexi Mittelstadt — quickly were welcomed into the team.
“I typically have the team over to my house two or three times by now. I haven’t done that,” Vachon said.
Millan said the Black Bears were able to hold socially distant team building events this summer and fall.
“We’re lucky we have a lot of nature. We were able to get outside,” Millan said.
Millan said she’s been impressed by the work ethic and talent of her new teammates. Vachon said it’s too early to know if any of the newcomers can make an impact like guard Anne Simon did, who was conference Rookie of the Year last season.
“They’re freshmen. They have good days and bad days. If you asked me on Oct. 16 last year if Anne Simon would be Rookie of the Year, I would not have said that,” Vachon said.
• • •
Calais native Maddy McVicar, who finished her UMaine career last spring with a strong senior season, recently signed a contract to play professional basketball in England with the Newcastle Eagles of the Women’s British Basketball League. McVicar started 28 games last season for the Black Bears, averaging 10 points per game and shooting 35.8 percent from 3-point range.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242