WATERVILLE — Rachael Mack could’ve given her teammates on the Colby College women’s basketball team some background on Julie Veilleux when Veilleux was a candidate for the Mules’ head coach job. Mack could’ve told sold her teammates on Veilleux by sharing their shared experience as players in Paul Vachon’s basketball factory at Cony High School in Augusta.
Mack could’ve told the Mules about her experiences being coached by Veilleux at Vachon’s summer basketball camp, or about being recruited by Veilleux to play at Bowdoin.
Turns out, Mack didn’t have to sell her teammates on Veilleux. When it was time to meet the players, Veilleux, Colby’s third head coach in as many years, sold herself.
“She made such a good impression on everyone, she spoke for herself,” Mack said.
The Mules open the season Saturday, taking on Clark in a tournament at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. at 7 p.m.
The coaching change hasn’t altered Colby’s goals. Coming off two consecutive trips to the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament, the Mules are ranked in the top 20 in two preseason polls (16th in the d3hoops.com poll and 20th in the USA Today/ESPN rankings). Coaches change, expectations do not.
“It’s exciting but also a challenge, because you’re getting a whole new system put in place. Everyone’s here for the right reasons, so everyone’s learning things quick. It makes things that much more exciting,” senior forward Kelly Potvin said.
“The big thing I talk with Coach (Veilleux) about is, it’s not about the Sweet 16. It’s about, we have a game on Saturday,” senior forward Jill Vaughan said. “It’s about the process and it’s about our most important game is Saturday against Clark. Then we have another game. You have to go step by step to get there. And we will.”
Two years ago, Lori Gear McBride coached Colby to a 24-5 record and the team’s first trip to the NCAA tournament. After McBride left to become head coach at the University of Vermont, former assistant coach Christine Clancy became the Mules’ interim head coach, and led the team to a 22-6 record and back to the second round of the NCAA tourney.
In April, Veilleux was hired. A three-year starter at the University of Maine, Veilleux was an assistant coach for three years at Bowdoin. When head coach Stephanie Pemper left Bowdoin to become head coach at Navy, Veilleux joined her, and coached three more seasons in Annapolis.
Veilleux understood that the Mules could feel anxious with yet another head coach, and could relate a little. Veilleux was recruited to Maine by Joanne Palombo-McCallie, who left for Michigan State before Veilleux enrolled, and was replaced by Sharon Versyp.
“I definitely made it a point to let them know that I recognize that for some, it’s their third coach in three years. That isn’t, I feel, an ideal situation,” Veilleux said. “I know how they feel, but it’s basketball. The ball goes up, we’ve got to keep going. It doesn’t matter who the coach is.”
When Clancy replaced McBride, many of the McBride’s coaching tendencies and style remained in place with her former assistant at the helm. Under Veilleux, everything changes.
“Even though they’ve had three coaches in three years, things they did last year were very similar to the year before in terms of plays and drills they do in practice,” Veilleux said. “This is probably the most challenging transition they’ve had, in terms of things being put in, everybody really being a freshman. They’ve really responded in a great way.”
Veilleux’s focus in the preseason has been team defense. Offensively, Veilleux said the Mules will run more plays than many of the players have ever seen before.
“A lot of quick hitters. I’m trying to be smart with what we have. I’m trying to put them in good spots,” Veilleux said. “It’s more, OK, who do we have, what’s our strength, and let’s create off that strength.”
Added Potvin: “Even in practice you can feel that there’s this new energy, and that might have to do with the fact that we’re all kind of learning this new system from the ground up, as opposed to trying to pull people in with us. We’re all on the same page and same level in terms of learning everything new.”
With nine returning players, including four seniors — Mack, Vaughan and Potvin, as well as guard Aarika Ritchie — the Mules have proven fast learners to Veilleux’s system.
“We have four very strong seniors, and they’re hopeful to continue on with a winning tradition. For me coming in, through my experiences, I’m hoping to help them take it to another level,” Veilleux said.
“With that, sometimes it’s less focusing on the end product and more the little things we need to take care of every day, whether we’re practicing or playing someone that day.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242