There have been some changes at the Central Maine Community College women’s basketball program. 

The trophy case has its second USCAA Division 2 national championship trophy after the Mustangs won the title in 2019. But the roster has had some drastic turnover, which has changed the game plan on the court. 

With 10 freshmen, CMCC has looked to third-year players Kristen Huntress and Natalie Thurber to become the consistent pieces of a squad in a retooling period.

But one thing that remains constant is head coach Andrew Morong’s message of focusing on perfecting the craft in time for playoffs. Huntress and Thurber are prepared to help the transition, as the team expects to be ready to defend its title when it’s time.

“We planned for it at the end of last year and said, ‘If you’re coming back, this is how it’s going to be,’” Morong said. “They were both very much looking forward to the opportunity.

“I don’t know that they took anything from anyone individually, it’s more about understanding the expectations of the program and being able to articulate that. Not just by example, but verbally,” Morong said. “With 10 players coming from all over the world, they’re helping us create that environment that is not only inclusive, but is part of something really special here.”

The Mustangs lost three All-Americans in Alex Bessey, Jordyn and Brooke Reynolds from its championship team last winter. Eraleena Gethers-Hairston was also a force in the paint, along with the Reynolds’, and this year CMCC has taken in a lot more perimeter players. 

Because of this, the offensive approach has changed from a post game to a one big/four perimeter approach. 

“I don’t think you can just go and find one player that replaces any one of those players, those are really hard to find, so we wanted to flip the script on people,” Morong said. “We’ve been very big and long the last couple of years and we wanted to change it and become quicker, faster, and be able to play different kinds of defenses than we have in the past. We wanted to get a little smaller and quicker and I think we have done that.”

The new offense starts with his two veterans, who Morong said have both played over 60 collegiate basketball games for the Mustangs. 

Morong raved about Huntress and Thurber’s 3-point shooting and added that Thurber is lethal from anywhere on the court and Huntress adds a perimeter defense that he hasn’t had before at the college. 

The two third-year players are adjusting to the change in philosophy and think it will start to click soon. 

“I like how different we are than the last two teams I’ve been on,” Huntress said. “We are a lot smaller but we are a lot more athletic and a lot faster. We have a lot of people that play different styles of basketball. We haven’t quite molded yet and used that to our advantage, but the team we are all expecting to be is the team that no one expects to get there, but we know we can. I think once we are able to get there it will be really special.”

“This year we are playing a lot of small ball,” Thurber said. “We have a lot of athleticism as opposed to size this year, so that’s definitely different. We have to adjust to that ourselves. It’s a lot more fun playing small ball.”

When the Reynolds sisters left the program, Thurber and Huntress were the obvious people to shift into leadership roles. For Thurber, Brooke was an inspiration. 

“She’s such an insanely-amazing player and person so there’s no one that can compare to her and filling her shoes,” Thurber said. “Just being able to look up to her and see how she grew here and wanting to be the person that grows, too, it’s just really inspiring. She was just an inspiration to everyone here, honestly.”

While Huntress and Thurber have filled their leadership roles well, the team has gotten off to an unfamiliar start. 

The Mustangs lost to the University of Maine at Augusta on Tuesday, 55-52, snapping a 56-game conference win streak. 

“I told them that this better be a learning experience,” Morong said. “It should be a learning situation and something that we gather information from, process and then move forward. And move forward quickly. If we don’t treat this as a moment we can learn and grow from then it’s a wasted opportunity.”

Morong didn’t think that most of his team even knew about the conference streak, but the loss was a wake-up call of sorts to show what can go wrong if the team isn’t on the same page. 

“I think it was a really good learning lesson for us and it kind of opened our eyes and showed that if we aren’t mentally prepared to play in a game and if we don’t give it our all then that’s what is going to happen, we are going to lose,” Huntress said. “We’ve had such a long conference win streak and we’ve been so successful that whenever someone plays us it’s like our championship game and we are going to get their best effort.”

On Thursday, CMCC took down Unity by 70 points. The freshmen, four second-years and the two third-years hope to gel over the next couple of months in time for the most-important games of the season. 

After being a part of a team that lost the national championship game, then won it the next year, Thurber is taking everything in this season.

“I’ve stopped taking things for granted,” Thurber said. “In basketball and in school, I don’t want to take things for granted. I came from a program that won a good amount but here, winning is it. I liked playing basketball before, but now I have a real passion for it.”

Kristen Huntress and Natalie Thurber take a moment for a photo before a CMCC basketball game on Thursday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

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