ORONO — The film session ran long. Before practice on Jan. 8, the University of Maine women’s basketball team was supposed to spend about a half hour breaking down the previous game. Two days earlier, the Black Bears committed 25 turnovers in an overtime loss to Binghamton. Now, with the team huddled around the large flat screen television in the locker room, head coach Amy Vachon looked at every single one.

Her critiques were consistent. She never raised her voice, but with every player and assistant coach focused on the screen, Vachon made sure her point was made.

“That’s us. That’s on us. That’s not talking. We’re just not executing,” Vachon said.

Most of the film session was a review of correctable mistakes. A half hour became an hour. If Vachon had focused only on the negative, the Black Bears would have been on the court sooner. But the coach didn’t want to end on the negative. Before the lights came up and the Black Bears went down the hall to the Pit to practice, Vachon showed the team highlights. Yes, Binghamton’s Imani Watkins scored 23 points, but because the Black Bears played tight defense, it took her 30 shots to get there. The review ends with a series of Maine’s good offensive possessions, something positive to carry into practice.

Vachon has been Maine’s head coach for just over a year. An Augusta native and 1996 Cony High School graduate, Vachon took over her alma mater last January, when coach Richard Barron stepped away for health reasons. While Vachon carries the interim label in front of her title as head coach of the Black Bears, there is no ambiguity as far as the University and team are concerned. The best point guard in the history of the University of Maine women’s basketball program, Vachon is in charge.

“I turned it over completely,” Barron said.

Barron is serving a seven-month term as a special assistant to Director of Athletics Karlton Creech. Neither Barron nor Vachon know if or when he’ll return to the sideline. Barron suffers from neurological conditions that cause pain, numbness and weakness in his arms and legs, as well as migraine headaches. Although his health is improving, Barron said no decisions regarding his future with the program have been made. Furthermore, Vachon said she has had no discussions with Creech regarding the removal of the interim tag.

As she sat on the sectional couch in the women’s basketball office, Vachon still referred to the room as Coach Barron’s office, although there was nothing on display to signify the room was his — or anyone’s. There were no family photos, no personal items. Just trophies and team keepsakes. Right now, Vachon is focused on the season. Her coaching future can wait.

“We’ll talk about that at the end of the season,” Vachon said.

CAREER PATH

Becoming head coach at her alma mater feels like the natural progression of Vachon’s basketball life. As with standout players such as Cindy Blodgett and Rachel Bouchard, the story of women’s basketball in Maine cannot be told without Amy Vachon.

Vachon was named Miss Maine Basketball as a Cony senior, leading the Rams to back-to-back Class A state titles in 1995 and 1996. In 2016, the undefeated 1995 team was inducted into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame. Later, as the Black Bears point guard, Vachon helped the team reach four consecutive NCAA tournaments, and was a key player in what is still the biggest win in program history — a first round upset of Stanford in the 1999 tournament. For her accomplishments as a player at Cony and Maine, Vachon was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame that same year. There’s no doubt that she’ll walk into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame, too, when she becomes eligible.

With Thursday’s 59-44 win at Hartford, Maine is 11-8, 4-2 in America East conference play. Since Barron became head coach prior to the 2011-12 season, the Black Bears have improved to consistently find themselves among the top half of America East teams. Since taking the reins from Barron in January last season, right after the team began conference play, Vachon’s Black Bears are a more-than-respectable 22-15.

That’s not bad, considering that for years Vachon told everybody who asked that coaching was not in her future.

“I always said I was never going to do it. Ask anyone. Even when I was in college, I was ‘Nope. Nope. When I’m done, I’m done.’ And I was,” Vachon said.

Her father, Paul Vachon, coached the Cony girls basketball team to seven Class A state titles in 23 seasons before retiring after the 2008 season. Vachon, the school’s athletic director, recalled Amy insisting she would never coach, as well.

“I thought she’d be a guidance counselor her whole life, and she’d be happy,” Paul Vachon said.

After graduating magna cum laude from Maine in 2000 with an elementary education degree, Vachon completed her student teaching before moving on to graduate school at the University of North Carolina. To fill time, Vachon coached. She coached field hockey at Bangor High School in the fall of 2000. When Waterville High needed a girls basketball coach, Vachon took the job, knowing it would be a one-season gig.

In North Carolina, where Vachon earned a master’s of education in school counseling degree, basketball was so low on her priority list — she said she didn’t attend a single Tar Heels game.

“I was so busy. I had 60 credit hours. I didn’t have time. I made a really good group of friends. We did our internship. We went to school,” Vachon said. “When I left here as a player, I really thought any of my association with basketball was done. I was tired. I had done it my whole life. I just, I needed a break. I didn’t have anything to do with it. It was really good for me, to be somewhere that no one knew me. Then it just kind of kept creeping back. I kind of kept doing it.”

BACK ON THE SIDELINES

When Vachon returned to Maine, she helped her father coach the Cony girls. She worked as a counselor in Westbrook schools, and then caught the coaching bug as an assistant at Greely High School. In 2010, Vachon took the head coaching job at powerhouse McAuley High School. She was at the Portland Catholic school one season, winning the Class A state championship, when Barron called.

In 2011, Barron was hired to rebuild a Maine women’s basketball program that had hit bottom. The Black Bears were coming off four consecutive seasons with at least 21 losses, and had not earned a winning record since the 2004-05 season. In selecting perspective candidates for his coaching staff, Barron wanted somebody who knew both basketball and the University of Maine. Vachon’s name kept coming up. He called her father to see if Amy might have interest in a job.

Here’s her number, Paul said. Call her.

“We just kind of hit it off. Her passion and general love of UMaine. It was her love of this program that resonated with me,” Barron said. “She has a very good understanding of the game. She’s a point guard and a coach’s daughter, been around the game since a young age.”

“Once I started getting back, basketball coaching in college was something I always thought about, but never seriously pursued. I never really seriously considered it,” Vachon added. “When he called to talk to me about it, it really intrigued me. Being back here and being part of it with him and bring it back to where it was has been fun. It’s been really challenging and a lot of work.”

As a member of Barron’s coaching staff, Vachon helped turn the Black Bears around. As it was when Vachon played, Maine contended for the conference title.

But early last season, Vachon knew Barron wasn’t feeling well. When he decided to step away from coaching, Vachon and the other assistant coaches weren’t blindsided.

“I knew there was something going on, as far as his health was concerned. I care about him so much as a person, and his family, it was my focus to see him get healthy. Nothing else mattered to me,” said assistant coach Jhasmin Player, who played at Baylor when Barron was an assistant coach there. “Amy handled it really well. I went from being an assistant to a higher level assistant. That’s not a big transition for me. She went from being an assistant to being a head coach, and that’s a huge jump in the middle of the season. We couldn’t tell. I’m not sure what went on in the privacy of her home, but when she came to the office and she came to the gym, it was business as usual.”

Maine finished 11-7 under Vachon that season and upset top-seeded New Hampshire in the America East tournament to reach the championship game, which they lost to Albany for a second straight season. Last spring, the university announced Vachon would continue as interim head coach for the 2017-18 season. The move was a stabilizing agent in an unsteady offseason for the program. Five players transferred out of Maine, and Vachon and Player were the only coaching staff holdovers.

NEW SEASON

In late December, Maine closed a brutal non-conference schedule with a 61-40 win over Boston College. The Black Bears non-conference stretch included games against nationally ranked Ohio State, Duke and former Maine head coach Joanne Palumbo McCallie, as well as Mississippi State, last season’s national runner-up.

“I really like our team. I like their willingness to get better. Their willingness to learn. Their commitment to each other and to themselves and to the program. It’s a fun group. They challenged themselves with our non-conference schedule. We competed,” Vachon said. “They pick things up quickly. We’re very versatile. We have a lot of kids who can do different things. We’re still young, so we make mistakes a lot. We don’t start a senior. We start a freshman, three sophomores, and a junior. We’re still learning. For us, we need to clean up on turnovers and things we can control.”

The Black Bears know that when Vachon speaks, her words come from a place of firsthand knowledge and experience. If they flip through the team’s media guide, the players can find their coach’s name in the record books. Vachon’s fingerprints are all over some of the most successful seasons in Maine women’s basketball history.

Vachon’s career assists record might be the most unassailable mark in the Black Bears record book. Vachon’s 759 assists is 272 more than the closest player on the list, Blodgett’s 487. Vachon owns the top three single season assist marks in school history. With the team, Vachon doesn’t discuss her playing days much. The current Black Bears know their coach could play, though, and they’ve heard stories. To see it, though, they might have to dust off a VCR.

“I’ve heard of her playing but I’ve never seen a video,” junior guard Tanesha Sutton said. “I’d love to see a video.”

Junior Parise Rossignol shares a lot in common with Vachon. A high school basketball standout in Van Buren, Rossignol was a 2014 finalist for Miss Maine Basketball. Like Vachon, her father is Maine basketball royalty. Matt Rossignol played basketball for Maine in the 80s. Too young to have seen Vachon play for Cony, Rossignol also has heard stories of her coach’s teams and high school tournament success.

“She built quite a name for herself when she played here. She was an incredible point guard,” Rossignol said.

After her sophomore season, Rossignol left the team. Basketball wasn’t fun anymore, she said, and she needed a break. Last offseason, Vachon reached out to Rossignol and convinced her to return.

“I was happy to come back. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to come back to a program that you left. Playing under her was a great opportunity, and I was happy to take it,” Rossignol said.

Rossignol remembered how Vachon would show up at her high school soccer games during the recruiting process. It was never just about basketball with Vachon, and it’s still not, Rossignol said.

“She’s really just given me a lot of confidence. She’s really big about just playing past your mistakes and not dwelling on them,” Rossignol said. “That’s something I struggled with a lot, even in high school. She’s the kind of coach that’s really encouraging.”

A Philadelphia native, Sutton said Vachon’s approach played a role in her decision to attend Maine. What Sutton remembers about her recruiting experience is how caring and honest Vachon was.

“With her as my coach, she looks to me to be a leader. I had to come out of my comfort zone. Come out my shell and be even more social. I know that’s going to carry on when I go into the work force,” Sutton said.

SHOWING COMPASSION

Like her mentors Barron, McCallie, and of course her father, Vachon knows the X’s and O’s of basketball. But Vachon’s greatest coaching strength? Empathy.

“Let’s say a kid comes in and she’s having a terrible day at practice. For me, it’s an X’s and O’s thing. The kid just needs to get in the middle and make a power dribble. For Amy, this kid may be homesick. It’s December and she hasn’t seen her mom. It’s finals week in addition to that. It’s cold as heck out here and this kid’s from Florida or Israel. She’s able to also think about those things in addition to X’s and O’s. I’m more thinking about what’s going on physically, while Amy is able to capture what’s going on in the greater scheme of things,” Player said.

The Black Bears have family nights at Vachon’s home, where they each give presentations on their family and background. As a team, they read one of the late Pat Summitt’s books. A week before Christmas, as the Black Bears were trying to get from Starksville, Mississippi to Durham, North Carolina to take on Duke, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport lost power, canceling flights and leaving travelers stranded across the country. In Mississippi, Vachon stopped the team bus at a Walmart. The team loaded up on food, movies, extra pillows, and Vachon and Director of Basketball Operations Tom Biskup drew tournament brackets on poster board. During the unexpected 12-hour drive to Durham, the Black Bears played games. What could have been a travel disaster became a team-bonding experience.

“What I admire most about Amy is her ability to love on these kids. It’s incredible. There’s some things I’m more hard-nosed about, and the counselor in her is like, no, we’re going to see how she’s doing. That approach is so different to me, and the kids love it about her. It makes me respect her even more. She’s able to separate basketball and these kids as individuals,” Player said.

Vachon’s sideline demeanor is equally calm. During Maine’s win over Vermont on Monday afternoon, Vachon’s most demonstrative action was unfolding her ams or kneeling. That’s in stark contrast to her father, who would often end games hoarse from shouting. When Paul Vachon watches his daughter coach, he’s happy to not see his clone.

“I don’t want her to be (me). I want her to be her. Amy is not Joanne Palumbo, not Richard Barron, not Paul Vachon. Amy is Amy Vachon. She’s taken a little bit from everybody and has her own philosophy. You’ve got to be yourself,” he said. “I don’t think Amy’s teams play the way I’d want my teams to play. You know me, I’m a defensive-crazy nut.”

For the most part, under Vachon Maine runs under the same philosophies set by Barron. Vachon was instrumental in installing those and sees no reason to make change for change’s sake. That said, she’s felt no push-back when she has made a change. Barron attends games and is there for advice, but he’s not standing over Vachon’s shoulder.

“I always say, X’s and O’s, he’s just brilliant. He really is. I call him a basketball genius. It would be silly for me not to do a lot of the things we’ve done. I’ve been here with him the whole time,” Vachon said. “Last year it definitely was. I didn’t want to rock the boat. We were going with what we had. This year, you can see, we still run the same stuff we ran with Coach Barron. How I coach is definitely different, because I’m a different person. You can’t be who you’re not. I guess this year I feel a little bit more freedom, because it’s been a year.”

Vachon’s future as Maine’s coach will be addressed in the offseason. Now, she’s focused on conference play and helping the Black Bears earn a high seed in the America East tournament. After once looking forward to a life outside basketball, Vachon now embraces it.

“This year, I’ve really, really enjoyed it. The staff is awesome. The kids are great,” Vachon said. “I think I do see myself in that role, but I couldn’t tell you at what level. It has to be a good fit. I’m not one of those people who can just go out searching. I have to have a job. I need to make sure I’m happy.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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