Looking Back: Talented Whittier worked hard to excel at basketball

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Gray-New Gloucester’s Katie Whittier (22) battles for a rebound vs. Mt. Desert Island in the Class B girls’ basketball state championship at Bangor Auditorium in Bangor in March 2002. (John Ewing/Portland Press Herald File Photo)

Katie Whittier makes a post move for the University of Maine women’s basketball team. (UMaine Athletics)

Katie Whittier never lacked talent on the basketball court.

Yet it took a competitive fire, a tireless work ethic and a love for the game to make her talent mean something.

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And it took a school project in seventh grade to jump-start a hoops career that took Whittier from Gray-New Gloucester to the University of Maine at Orono, and even further, to Switzerland, and to a stage of a different kind.

“It was kind of like write yourself a letter for when you graduate high school, and my goal was to earn a Division I scholarship, when I was in seventh grade,” Whittier said. “And I actually wrote that down, and my mom gave me the letter when I graduated high school, and there it was.”

It was around the time of writing that letter that Whittier, who attended Eastgate Christian School in her hometown of New Gloucester before going to Gray-New Gloucester Middle School, really started getting “pretty competitive” in basketball.

When she moved up to the high school two years later, Whittier made it onto the varsity squad as a freshman, and she was a starter right from the get-go.

“She had a ton of talent but was physically not ready to play against seniors,” said Craig Jipson, who was the Gray-NG varsity coach in Whittier’s first high school season. “Still had an excellent freshman year.

“I was really tough on her and she never complained once. I thought from day one she was a Division I talent.”

So, too, did the University of Maine — the state’s only Division I school.

“Recruited her hard,” former Maine coach Sharon Versyp said. “Just saw her, she was long and lanky and was just developing, but you could see because she was dedicated and a hard worker. A bit shy then, but knew what she wanted to do and was always focused and very bright.”

If Division I was the goal for Whittier, University of Maine was the dream.

“I always wanted to go to the University of Maine, ever since I was little,” Whittier said. “Like I watched the teams of the ’90s, when Cindy Blodgett played, Amy Vachon, Jamie Cassidy were huge. You know, Maine was really competitive in Division I basketball when I was growing up.”

After getting scouted by Maine her freshman season, Whittier verbally committed to the school her sophomore year. She said after that she wasn’t really looking at any other schools because her dream scenario — not to mention a seventh-grade goal — had come true.

Becoming a star

Before Whittier could take her talents to Orono, she first had to take Gray-New Gloucester farther than it had ever gone before.

By the time Whittier was an upperclassman, the Patriots brought in Ken Butler to replace Jipson. And in Whittier’s junior year she helped welcome in a freshmen class that lent support to the budding star.

“It was awesome,” said Dawn (Ross) Armandi, who was one of those freshman. “I quickly learned how to compete and match the pace of play that was needed in order to be on the floor with her. It was great. I looked right up to her. All I wanted to do was get her the ball and let her shine.”

Armandi said her rapport with Whittier began even before Armandi entered high school. She would go over to Whittier’s house, and she and Whittier’s younger sister, Christine, a classmate of Armandi, would work on passing the ball to Katie. Katie and Christine’s father, Ron, who was an assistant coach at Gray-New Gloucester, gave pointers on how to pass the ball to Katie in the post.

“We were a little prepared to play with her by the time we got there,” Armandi said.

With Katie Whittier and senior Sarah DeLuca as the leaders, and a supporting cast that included Armandi, Christine Whittier and other freshman, the Patriots made it all the way to the Class B state championship game for the first time in program history.

“I just think we had figured out what worked,” Katie Whittier said. “I just think we were confident, and we worked together as a team. I think we were just well-rounded. We had a good group of girls that came up through the system.”

The dream season didn’t come with a happy ending, however, because the Patriots lost to Mount Desert Island in the title game.

Gray-New Gloucester returned much of the roster the following year, albeit without DeLuca, who Whittier said was “a huge reason for us getting to states the year before.”

The Patriots had “a little more pressure” on their shoulders in Whittier’s senior season. But that only made them work harder.

“I think we had that drive. We knew we could do it. We fell a little bit short (the year before),” Whittier said. “But I just remember in practice every day we were so competitive. Like every sprint I remember competing with Dawn Ross, and my sister, and Josalee Danieli, and Tina Kennedy, Laurie Young.

“I just remember every practice we were super competitive, and we worked hard.”

No one worked harder than Whittier, though, according to Armandi.

“I remember — I played other sports — but I remember passing through the gym after school and Katie would be in the gym shooting around and getting shots up. None of the other girls did that. Nobody else was probably in the gym more than Katie, outside of the regular season,” Armandi said.

It was easy for Whittier to find the motivation to put in the extra work outside of practices and games.

“I just remember I loved basketball so much,” Whittier said. “It was like I lived it every single day, I dreamed it, I wanted to be the best I could be. I remember practicing in my yard in the middle of winter when it was snowing. I wanted to be good.”

But Whittier wasn’t just good. She was great. She became the first 1,000-point scorer in program history, a Class A/B West Maine McDonald’s Senior All-Star, and she took the lead role in getting the Patriots back to the Class B state final as a senior in 2002.

Alas, Gray-New Gloucester once again fell to MDI, albeit by a closer margin.

Still, 16 years later, the memories Whittier keeps from those losses are only the positive ones.

“As sad as it was that we lost both times, just having that experience of playing in a state championship game, and having your community surround you and support you. No one really remembers the score,” Whittier said. “You remember the relationships you made, some of the awesome plays. I remember a play that my sister had assisted me underneath the hoop. I remember little moments like that, or like Dawn Ross on a fastbreak, or me being stuffed by Bracey Barker. Like those are like the little things I remember. You know, yes, it’s disappointing we lost, but for me it’s more about the experience.”

Becoming a Black Bear

Experience was something Whittier had four years to accrue at Gray-New Gloucester, stepping onto the court in the first minute of her high-school career. But doing the same thing at Maine, at the Division I level, was not so easy and not a given.

“It’s an eye-opener as an athlete because you’re surrounded by people who are just as good as you are and better than you are, so you know you have to step your game up and work even harder,” Whittier said. “Definitely, getting to college I realized that right away. Like I didn’t play for my first two years. I had Heather Ernest in front of me, who was pretty much an All-American, phenomenal basketball player. So I just watched, I learned and I worked my butt off to earn a starting position my junior year.”

Whittier was relegated to the bench under Versyp — redshirting her first year — but that didn’t deter her from doing everything she could in practice to try to help the team while making a good impression.

“When you first come in as a freshman it’s always difficult because you got to understand system and learn things. But I thought she was patient with those type of things, and kind of knew her niche,” Versyp said. “She just kept her head down, and kept working, and was just a good team player.”

From the bench is where Whittier watched the Black Bears play in the NCAA Tournament her second year. Maine lost in the first round to Texas Tech, but Whittier still called the experience “pretty cool” and “kind of like a dream.”

Ernest graduated at the end of that season, opening up playing time for Whittier, but a starting role was still yet to come.

It wasn’t until after Versyp moved on to Indiana University (for a year, then her alma mater, Purdue University, where she still coaches) and Ann McInerney was brought in from Merrimack College to replace her that Whittier finally broke into the starting lineup.

Flashes of the standout player that led Gray-New Gloucester to state finals came immediately.

“I remember my first game … I forget what team we were playing, but I think my first game starting, I think I had a double-double. I just had an awesome game, and I just remember being so pumped, and being like, ‘Finally, all my hard work paid off,'” Whittier said.

Whittier set program records that fourth season for field-goal percentage in a game (.917 on 11-of-12 shooting against North Carolina A&T) and in a season (.623). The following year she was named a captain, along with former high-school rival Barker and Ashley Underwood.

“For us, it was really important, just all being Maine girls,” Whittier said. “Just keeping the team together. It was important to instill and continue the Maine pride. Little traditions that have been carried on down from year to year, and just making sure that just continued on even after we graduated.”

“She was a great teammate that really led by example with her hard work and determination,” said Underwood, whose married name is Markwood. “She was vocal when she had to be — but in a respectful way.”

Whittier finished her five-year Black Bear career with 452 points (5.1 per game), 283 rebounds (3.2), 67 assists (0.8) and 25 blocks (0.3). She shot 53.5 percent from the field.

Unlike her high-school career, the teams at the end of her time at Maine weren’t as competitive as when she got there. After making the NCAA tournament her second year, and the National Invitational Tournament her third, the Black Bears lost more games than they won her final two seasons. Whittier said it wasn’t for a lack of trying on those teams’ parts.

Whittier’s basketball career lasted one more year, when she played professionally for Riva Basket in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland. She was on a team with mostly local players, but did get to compete for playing time with old America East rival Jessica Smith, who went to Stony Brook.

After a year playing professionally, Whittier decided she had had enough. But she stayed overseas, living abroad with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Troy Barnes, who played hockey at Maine before eventually playing professionally in Italy.

A new stage

Whittier moved on from Maine — and basketball — but she stayed connected with some of her former teammates. She was in Barker’s wedding, showing how much that one-time rivalry became a lasting friendship because of UMaine, while Markwood helped open a new door for Whittier.

Markwood decided to give pageants a try, and it resulted in winning the Miss Maine USA pageant and a spot in the Miss USA pageant in 2009. Whittier went to Las Vegas with Markwood to support her, but it also was an eye-opener for Whittier.

Just not necessarily immediately.

Markwood told Whittier she should try pageants — a suggestion Whittier said she blew off at first — but Markwood kept at it.

“Have you seen her? She’s stunning. I knew she would do an amazing job,” Markwood said. “I don’t think I had to try too hard, actually.”

“Finally I was like, ‘OK, I’ll try it,’ and that’s how it came about,” Whittier said.

The Miss Maine USA pageant the following year was Whittier’s first foray into pageants.

“I just remember I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous for anything,” Whittier said. “I always said, ‘Put me on a basketball court in front of millions of people,’ and I would have been confident as can be. I just remember being so nervous on that stage and being like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’ But I gained confidence over time.”

Whittier said it was her “athletic edge” that she used to gain confidence. She said she might have even been wearing basketball shorts and high heels at the same time before a pageant.

A natural on the court, Whittier was also a natural on the stage. She won Miss Maine USA in 2010, which qualified her for the Miss USA pageant.

“I went into it with no expectations, not knowing how it was going to go. I just gave it my all,” Whittier said.

Markwood said having Whittier win was her expectation all along.

“I had almost completed my year and I just thought it would be such a cool story if I could crown her as my successor. Friends and former basketball teammates, it was a really cool moment I’ll never forget,” Markwood said.

Whittier said people asked her for any “dirt” she might have witnessed behind the scenes of the Miss USA pageant, but she didn’t have any. There wasn’t any.

“All the girls that I was surrounded with were super smart, super successful, really like a good group of people. There wasn’t any — from what I experienced — any cattiness. It was a lot of just women supporting women, and we’re all kind of striving for the same goal,” Whittier said.

What wasn’t even on Whittier’s radar less than year prior was now her new goal — and that was to put her all into the Miss USA pageant. And, once again, that hard work paid off. Whittier finished fifth, the highest the Maine representative has ever placed at the Miss USA pageant.

“I was so proud of her,” Markwood said. “Pageants aren’t easy, and she handled everything with class and grace.”

Getting back to her roots

After stepping into the spotlight once again, Whittier returned home. She eventually completed her master’s degree in vocational rehab counseling and took on a bigger role at Whittier House, the family-run group home in New Gloucester that her father started nearly 20 years ago that works mainly with adult males with autism.

“I’m working in the field, and advocating and supporting people with disabilities,” Whittier said. “I love my job.”

It was home where Whittier once again was reunited with another love — basketball.

Armandi, who took the girls’ varsity head coaching job at Falmouth High School in May of 2016, said she was talking to Ron Whittier, and he mentioned that Katie was interested in getting into coaching. At a birthday party for Whittier’s son a couple weeks later, Armandi asked Whittier to be one of her assistants, calling it a “no-brainer” decision.

Whittier accepted the job.

“She was really great. She was very vocal with the girls right away, showing them moves that they hadn’t been exposed to before,” Armandi said. “Most coaches kind of come in and might be a little timid their first year, but not Katie. She was anxious to kind of help these girls learn how to play basketball.”

“It was fun to be back in it. Just, I love being in a team atmosphere. The athletic and competitive nature, kind of brought it out of me again,” Whittier said. “Having to step back and realize, ‘OK, you’re not the player anymore,’ and try to give them the competitive edge that you once had.”

Whittier was the JV coach two years ago, but stepped back into a volunteer role this past season.

Still, Whittier said, it’s hard for her to stay away from the game entirely.

“It’s always kind of funny to think if you could go back and play again, like what you know now,” Whittier said. “Dawn and I would always just laugh, like, ‘Ugh, if we could only go back and play again …'”

There will always be what-ifs, but Armandi can look back at the past, and look at the present, and focus on the because-of.

“I think we gave the town a lot of hope (those two title-run years), and hopefully made an impact on the younger kids that came up and wanted to get there, and to do great things. And Katie — I mean, everybody knows Katie’s name in the town still,” Armandi said. “So I just think her being the first to kind of do it all for the town gave a lot of hope and inspiration, and people still talk about her and look up to her today.”

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Host Curtis Stone teases Miss Maine, Katherine Ashley Whittier, about her height during the Miss USA 2010 pageant in May 2010 in Las Vegas. (AP file photo)

Gray-New Gloucester High School’s Katie Whittier poses for a photo in the school in February 2001. (Jack Milton/Portland Press Herald File Photo)

Katie Whittier played at the University of Maine from 2003-07. (UMaine Athletics)

Gray-New Gloucester’s Katie Whittier control the ball during practicein November 2001. (Jack Milton/Portland Press Herald File Photo)

Katie Whittier makes a post move for the University of Maine women’s basketball team. (UMaine Athletics)Boston College’s Kathrin Ress shoots over Maine Katie Whittier (20) and Lindsey Hugstad-Vaa, right, during a college basketball game in Boston in Dec. 2006. (AP file photoi)

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