The University of Maine women’s basketball team ended its season on Saturday with an 83-54 loss to Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Ignore the lopsided score. This game was another step in a season full of progress for the Black Bears.

A year ago, the Black Bears were coming off a second consecutive loss to Albany in the America East Conference championship game. Five players were transferring, leaving Maine with a roster of seven players. That’s basically half a roster. On top of that, coach Amy Vachon carried the interim tag after stepping in mid-season when head coach Richard Barron began an open-ended medical leave of absence.

Now?

Maine is coming off its first conference championship in 14 years, and the Black Bears might just be the most stable program in America East.

It starts at the top. Right before the start of the conference tournament, Vachon had the interim label removed and was rewarded with a much-deserved four year contract. The contract will pay Vachon $120,000 per year with $5,000 annual increases starting in her second year. It is a reward for a job well done. It also removes the biggest question hanging over the Maine women’s basketball program, and one that came up in recruiting. Who is going to be the Black Bears head coach? Until this extension, the only answer Vachon and her assistant could honestly give any recruit who asked was “I don’t know.”

In a perfect world, prospective college athletes would select a school solely for academic reasons, but we know the world is far from perfect. Athletes want to know who will be coaching them. With a four-year contract and Barron now head men’s basketball coach at Maine, Vachon has an answer to those questions. There’s always a chance Vachon could move on to another school, but with her ties to the state and Black Bears program (Vachon was Miss Maine Basketball as a Cony High School senior in 1996 and holds the Maine record for career assists), potential Black Bears know if they choose to attend Maine, they have a coach who is uniquely invested in and tied to the program.

The current Maine players can point to their success under Vachon, and use that success as a foundation knowing that their coach will be back.

Maine graduates just one player, senior Kirsten Johnson. A 6-foot-2 forward, Johnson provided depth in the post and key minutes off the bench for the Black Bears. Assuming Maine isn’t hit by a slew of transfers again (and in today’s college basketball, that’s never a safe assumption), the team will return all five starters and the top six players in terms of minutes played from a team that won 23 games, including 14 of 15 leading into the NCAA tournament. This is a team that played a tough non-conference schedule, with games at nationally ranked Ohio State, Mississippi State and Duke, and improved as the season wore on.

Leading scorer Blana Millan? A sophomore who will be back. Tanesha Sutton and Julie Brosseau, who each also averaged double-digit points? They’ll be back. Point guard Dor Saar, the America East Rookie of the Year? A freshman who will be back. So will conference Sixth Player of the Year Parise Rossignol, who returned to the team this past season after a year away from basketball and helped fill the void created by the five transfers.

A season that began with a lot of questions ended with a conference championship. The lopsided loss to the Longhorns is a disappointment, not a setback. The Black Bears should go into the 2018-19 season as the overwhelming favorite in America East. This season’s success breeds expectations, but with questions surrounding the coach and a veteran team returning, those expectations are extremely realistic.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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