Maine sophomore Abbe Laurence averaged 10 points and five rebounds in victories over Providence and Rhode Island last weekend. Stew Milne photo

Sometimes, said University of Maine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon, you have to take a chance when recruiting someone.

In the case of Abbe Laurence, it appears that chance is paying off.

Laurence, a 6-foot-2 sophomore forward from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, didn’t play basketball until her freshman year in high school. Now, she is primed to play a vital role for the Black Bears this winter.

She started the two games Maine won last weekend in Rhode Island, averaging 10 points, five rebounds and one blocked shot in 26.5 minutes. And while the Black Bears will get seniors Fanny Wadling (6-foot-1) and Maeve Carroll (5-11) back from injuries soon, Laurence will continue to get her time on the court. Maine (2-0) plays at Northeastern University in Boston at noon Sunday.

“Her ceiling is really high,” said Vachon. “She’s strong, fast, freaky athletic … she works hard, she listens.”

Laurence is willing to bide her time when Wadling and Carroll return – “I will go in whenever (Vachon) needs me to go in and do whatever she needs me to do” – but she’s just one of several young players ready to step into bigger roles.

Last season, guard Anne Simon was the America East Rookie of the Year. She became Maine’s top offensive threat down the stretch, averaging 17.5 points and 6.9 rebounds over the final 10 games. University of Rhode Island photo

Sophomore guard Anne Simon was last year’s America East Rookie of the Year. A native of Sandweiler, Luxembourg, she is a three-year captain of the Luxembourg national team. Simon earned valuable experience last season when injuries ripped through the Black Bears’ lineup, leaving them with just eight healthy players at the end of the season.

Simon averaged 13.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.6 steals as a freshman. In two games last weekend, she averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one steal in 33 minutes.

Sophomore guard Anna Kahelin, a native of Helsinki, Finland, played in 31 games last year, starting 10. She’s due back from an injury in January. Then there’s freshman Alba Orois, a native of Mollet del Valles, Spain. She gave Maine a boost off the bench last weekend.

And while experienced stars like Blanca Millan and Dor Saar will once again command attention, Vachon has been stressing that the young players are going to contribute.

“We are deeper than we ever have been and we’re hoping to spread those minutes a little bit,” said Vachon. “The best five who give us a chance to win will be out on the court.”

Simon and Laurence room together, along with Kahelin, in an off-campus apartment. They have a Christmas tree with presents under it and enjoy watching basketball games. Laurence, according to Simon, is the better cook – “Just the way she seasons everything, she has so many ideas that I would not use to cook,” said Simon – while Laurence tries to convert her international roomies to watch American football.

“Sometimes they don’t get it,” said Laurence, a New England Patriots fan. “So I do my best to show them.”

The bonds that they are sharing off the court only strengthen them on the court. Laurence brings an inside presence, a defensive shot blocker with enough speed – she was also a sprinter and a lacrosse player at Portsmouth High – to beat her defender down the court. Simon is an all-around threat, capable of guarding taller players while providing an offensive threat.

“I was very lucky last year,” Simon said of her increased role as the season progressed. She became Maine’s top offensive threat down the stretch, averaging 17.5 points and 6.9 rebounds over the final 10 games. “It just gave me more experience and I want to build off that. I have to keep up the hard work and get better every year.”

Laurence was only able to watch Simon and Kahelin play for most of last season. She appeared in just 11 games, missing the rest of the season because of a partial tear in the patella tendon of her right knee. Sitting, she said, was actually beneficial.

“It kind of slows things down for you, gives you a whole new perspective,” she said. “I saw the game in a different way. You can learn so much from your teammates. It was a great opportunity to watch Maeve and how she plays, and watch the guards and how they played together.”

Abbe Laurence didn’t play club basketball until after her sophomore year of high school. Lacrosse had been her favorite sport growing up. UMaine women’s basketball coach Amy Vachon first spotted Laurence as a high school senior. Stew Milne photo

She worked hard in the offseason and spent much of the summer picking the thoughts of Millan, who was returning from a knee injury that ended her season after just six games.

“We spent all summer together,” said Millan. “Abbe just wants to work. She asks me a lot of questions about basketball all the time. She’s working hard all the time. She will be very good.”

Simon also uses Millan as a sounding board and role model.

“Blanca plays the same position as me,” she said. “In practice, I like to compete against her. And playing with her helps me improve my game.”

And like Millan, Simon has the experience gained playing international ball. It’s a different level than high school, as you are often going against older players.

“I think it just has a lot to do with experience,” said Simon. “It’s about playing. If I had just played in Luxembourg, I don’t think I would have gained the experience I have now. Other countries play more physical, and it’s good to compare your team against a better team and see how you measure up.”

Laurence didn’t have the same opportunities to measure her basketball ability. While she had played rec basketball at a very young age, lacrosse was her favorite sport. She tried out for basketball as a freshman and made the varsity. “Probably because I was 6-1,” she said. “I’ve always been tall.”

At the end of her sophomore year, in which she played on a state championship lacrosse team, Laurence attended several lacrosse recruiting camps – and discovered she didn’t want to play lacrosse in college. “I didn’t enjoy them, I didn’t enjoy the culture,” she said of the camps. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”

So she turned to basketball and joined the New England Crusaders AAU team. In her senior season at Portsmouth High, Crusaders Coach Kara Leary reached out to Vachon to take a look at Laurence. She and assistant Courtney England saw her play in a tournament game.

“The way she posted up and the way she ran the floor, I said, ‘We don’t have that on our team,’ ” said Vachon.

And Laurence became a Black Bear.

“It’s funny, I never did choose basketball,” she said. “I’d done every sport, lacrosse and track, but basketball was on the back burner. I’m happy I went down this route. And I do think all the experience from the other sports did help me get where I am.”


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