No need to worry, wonder or wax wistful, fans of University of Maine women’s basketball.

The program you knew and loved during the decade of Cindy Blodgett, Amy Vachon and Jamie Cassidy is alive and well.

OK, so the NCAA Tournament and now even the Women’s NIT march on to their infinite madness minus the Black Bears, who were eliminated by Creighton in the opening round of the consolation-prize bracket at Alfond Arena last Thursday night.

What Maine demonstrated before bowing out, however, is what will persuade most of us to party like it’s 1999 all over again and make more frequent pilgrimages along Interstate 95 to the friendly confines of its den next winter.

Youthful exuberance and a distaste for losing, all orchestrated by a coach named Sharon Versyp who burns with such chip-on-her-shoulder intensity that it’s easy enough for us old-timers in the Maine media to slip up and address her as Joanne Palombo.

Maine walked away from its first 25-win season so unfulfilled and ticked off that I guarantee the beginning of a new streak of NCAA tourney appearances next year.

Pity the rest of America East, which must confront a meaner, stronger, older version of Heather Ernest. All she did as a junior was dominate the conference to the tune of 20 points and 10 rebounds, minimum, each night.

Somehow, Ernest gives the impression that she treats sheer numbers in the same way a toddler treats his or her vegetables.

“Playing in the postseason was a great experience for us, but nobody likes to lose. Losing hurts. It makes you want to come back and play that much harder next year,” Ernest said following the 74-67 loss to Creighton.

The Black Bears underachieved in March, and they know it.

Maine was the dominant team in its conference this season. Eighteen up, eighteen down, including two victories in the league tournament. Rarely were the Black Bears even challenged in the feel-good, politically correct sense of the word.

Had Maine shown up for the first eight minutes of its conference championship game against Boston University, the Black Bears would have been on the road this weekend, most likely serving as the appetizer for one of the top two seeds in an NCAA regional.

While there’s nothing glamorous on the surface about that accomplishment, it was a step Maine needed to take and was good enough to take without being embarrassed or demoralized.

“Our last two games in the conference tournament, our intensity just wasn’t there at all,” said Ernest. “We definitely needed (the NIT) to get back our pride and to play the way we know we’re capable of playing.”

Ernest has joined the short list of Blodgett, Vachon, Rachel Bouchard and Liz Coffin as one of the all-time in-state talents to wear the blue and white.

There were times during Maine’s ill-fated postseason run when it appeared she was the Black Bears’ only option. In reality, there are many more proven performers who will thrive following an offseason of discontent.

Melissa Heon and Julie Veilleux will rediscover their outside shots. Missy Traversi will discover ways to get open for hers more frequently.

Monica Peterson’s ever-improving presence in the low post will make it impossible for foes to double-team the wiry Ernest. Kim Corbitt’s thievery is likely to run more rampant with another summer of seasoning.

The only player to take the floor in the Creighton loss who won’t be back next year is fifth-year senior Ellen Geraghty. Add redshirt freshman Katie Whittier, Maine Miss Basketball Bracey Barker and yet another Cony product in Ashley Underwood to the mix, and it’s easy to see that Maine has regained both the talent level and the homegrown look that made its program so fun to watch for nearly a decade.

“People put such emphasis on us not making the NCAA Tournament. Does 16-0 in the conference mean anything? Do 21 straight wins mean anything? I’d like to think so,” said Versyp. “We have the conference player of the year, nine players who are freshmen or sophomores, and a great recruiting class. I’m excited about next year.”

We should be, too.

Kalle Oakes is sports editor. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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