ORONO (AP) – Cindy Blodgett filled arenas and won championships as a high school and college hoops phenom. Hopes are high that she can do the same as the new University of Maine women’s basketball coach.

Nearly a decade has passed since Blodgett won over the state with her court wizardry. While at Maine from 1994-98, she took the team to the NCAA tournament four times and was the nation’s scoring leader two straight years.

Now 31, Blodgett is no longer the shy country girl with a mop of curly hair who became a basketball icon during UMaine’s era of Cindy-mania. One challenge she faces is making the transition from beloved “Cindy” to Coach Blodgett.

“Being back in Maine, so many people remember me from when I was 14 to 20 years old,” she said. “They don’t realize I’ve been away for years.”

Blodgett, who has played in the WNBA and served as an assistant college coach, inherits a program that is coming off consecutive losing seasons, the first time that’s happened in the team’s modern era dating back to 1975.

Hard work will win games, she said, and winning will fill seats. Last year’s average attendance was less than 1,800 a game – a far cry from her playing days when women’s games attracted nearly 5,000 a game and outdrew the men’s team.

Blodgett wants fans to come out to watch the team. But they can be excused if they show up to see Blodgett, regardless of the players on the floor.

“She was the state’s child. She captured the heart of the state,” said Maria Baeza, president of the Friends of Maine Women’s Basketball. “I think that memory is what people go to when think of her at the helm.”

As a youngster growing up in Clinton, Blodgett drew comfort in basketball. Day and night, she dribbled and shot in her driveway a la Larry Bird. When she was 12, she wore her Boston Celtics basketball shorts under her bridesmaid’s dress at her sister’s wedding.

In high school, she led Lawrence High School to four state championships and was the subject of two books – one by Tabitha King, the wife of best-selling author Stephen King.

For college, Blodgett was wooed by dozens of Division I teams but chose Maine, an hour’s drive away. Wearing No. 14, she led the team to four conference titles while twice leading the nation in scoring.

After college, she was the No. 6 pick in the WNBA draft and played with the Cleveland Rockers and Sacramento Monarchs. She later played overseas and served as an assistant coach at Boston University and at Brown.

Blodgett’s hiring has been ballyhooed in Maine, and its significance isn’t lost on her team.

Kristin Baker, a sophomore guard from Bingham, Maine, wore No. 14 because of Blodgett when she was in high school. She can’t wear that number at Maine – the number’s retired and hanging in the arena – so she chose No. 4, the next best thing.

Baker said the players are well-aware of Blodgett’s basketball prowess, and are impressed with what she has to offer.

“She’s been everywhere. She’s done it all,” Baker said.

When Blodgett was hired, some questioned if she had the coaching experience to become a Division I head coach. But others defended the choice, including her former coach at Maine, Joanne Palombo McCallie, now the head coach at Duke.

Blodgett isn’t worried. “I will not allow myself to be preoccupied by what others expect or speak about or suggest,” she said.

The biggest concern for George Hale, a longtime Maine radio and TV broadcaster, is that people will expect Blodgett to turn around the program immediately.

“She can do the job, but it won’t be an overnight deal,” he said. “I fear that sometimes people will expect an overnight sensation and I don’t believe that will happen.”

For the 2007-08 season, Blodgett is pushing her players hard. The team’s home opener is Thursday against Dartmouth after starting the season at Clemson.

On a recent afternoon at Memorial Gym, she ran players through a two-hour workout on the same floor she practiced on as a student.

Blodgett can still swish three-pointers and make nine of 10 free throws. But she cautions that all she can do as coach is prepare the team and manage the players during the game.

“I’m not going to put the uniform on,” she said.

Her office isn’t luxurious or ornate, but it contains hints of what to expect from her.

On a wall hangs a framed photograph of a sold-out Alfond Arena from a basketball game during Blodgett’s playing days. On her desk is “Beyond Basketball,” a book by Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski offering his teachings on basketball and life.

Like Krzyzewski, Blodgett hopes to teach her players not only about X’s and O’s, but also about discipline, responsibility and doing their best.

“I don’t want to just be a basketball coach and use the players for W’s and when they leave, they leave,” she said. “I feel our role as educators goes beyond the basketball court.”

University of Maine sports http://www.goblackbears.com

AP-ES-11-09-07 1300EST

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