I’m not the world’s leading apologist for my state of origin.
Invariably the conversation turns to the tax burden, job market, black fly population, mathematical certainty of a crippling snowstorm in mid-March and the fact that it took y’all decades to finally get a Krispy Kreme or a Chick-Fil-A.
At that point, I can only give it my endorsement as a cool place to visit on a random, sunny Thursday in July.
There is a specific area of accomplishment, however, that leaves me teeming with pride for the region in which I was born. Relatively quiet for a decade-going-on-two, that tradition returned to the national forefront this past week.
Maine women’s basketball, baby.
Not specifically University of Maine women’s basketball, either, although surely its unexpected success this winter is the inspiration for these words of appreciation. Orono’s program ascended to national prominence in the 1990s largely because the entire state was ahead of the curve in giving female hoops the respect it deserved.
While other parts of the country wrung their hands and fretted about how to give the girls separate-but-equal treatment in the aftermath of Title IX, Maine rightly decided to place the newly sanctioned sport front-and-center.
The Maine Principals’ Association said we will put both versions of the game side-by-side in Augusta, Bangor and Portland, by golly. Regional and state championships would be promoted as doubleheaders, unashamedly, and broadcast statewide.
Putting the product in that spotlight is a primary reason Maine produced a star of national prominence, Westbrook’s Lisa Blais, right off the bat. Blais helped steer Old Dominion to an NCAA championship in 1985.
That talent pipeline grew more potent, and fans of the sport rapidly reaped the benefits closer to home. She is often forgotten today, but Hall-Dale’s Rachel Bouchard was the standard-bearer who built the foundation at Maine. Tall, athletic and tireless committed to the game, she was the first to show younger ladies that you could get a great education while competing on a national scope in your favorite sport without crossing the state line.
Those lessons paid dividends about five years later, when we met Cindy Blodgett. Curly-haired, barely 5-foot-8, given to an economy of words, armed with a self-taught and unorthodox style of jump shot, she led Lawrence High School to four consecutive state championships and was a folk hero long before she spurned offers from Notre Dame and Colorado to grow her legend an hour from home.
You couldn’t adequately convey to a 16-year-old player of today what a big deal battles between Blodgett’s Bulldogs and Amy Vachon’s Cony Rams were at the time. Regular-season games were broadcast on statewide TV. The inevitable playoff rematch played out to crowds north of 6,500 at Bangor Auditorium. By the time the boys’ alleged “main event” tipped off, half had gone home, fully satisfied with the payback for their entertainment dollar.
Blodgett exceeded 2,500 points in high school and poured in more than 3,000 points during a stellar career at the flagship university. Four consecutive America East titles begat four corresponding trips to the big dance.
Unfortunately, in part because the NCAA couldn’t be bothered at the time to apply the same sweat-and-tears seeding procedure to the women’s tournament that it did the men’s, Maine was assigned to face national powers Connecticut, George Washington, Louisiana State and North Carolina State those years. Three of the four round-of-64 match-ups were true road games. The LSU loss was close. The others, ugh.
Only after Blodgett graduated, and the Vachon and Jamie Cassidy-led holdovers were given the chance to play Stanford in a down year on a neutral court, did the Black Bears finally break through and win one. In a roundabout way, it was probably the impetus for one of Maine’s future stars, Ashley Cimino, to play her college ball in Palo Alto.
Mt. Blue’s Heather Ernest continued the parade of high school champions to the state university and enjoyed a hall of fame career, capped by a nail-biting loss to Texas Tech in 2004.
Maine hadn’t been back since then until Friday, when, now led by the emotionally invested and personable Vachon, it ran away from Hartford at packed-out Cross Insurance Center to clinch America East’s automatic berth.
The announced crowd of 3,373 was the league’s highest for a women’s final since 1998 – not coincidentally when Blodgett and Vachon were in uniform, the last time Maine hosted the thing.
To whatever extent this revival grows, it shouldn’t shock anyone. Girls’ basketball in Maine was never dormant in the first place, and fan interest never wavered.
A girl in Maine remains more likely to earn a Division I basketball scholarship than a boy. And if you’re part of a highly ranked girls’ basketball team in Maine, you’ll play in front of crowds that match and often exceed the gathering at boys’ games.
Everybody shares in the credit, but of course I’m a little biased toward my own friends and contemporaries. I think of my late colleague, Kevin Mills, who spent years treating girls’ basketball like it was big-league. I also credit coaching legends such as Gavin Kane, and Amy’s dad Paul Vachon, who weren’t afraid to challenge girls and coach them no differently than boys.
Maine always set its bar high for girls’ and women’s basketball. It has sown equality and reaped success on multiple levels.
That ought to be a source of immense pride to die-hard lifers and departed natives alike.
*Kalle Oakes was a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports staff. He has been sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic since July 2016. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.