The University of Maine’s Blanca Millán was named America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year this season. She is the only player in conference history to win both awards twice. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

They want to make their mark, to make sure they will be remembered as one of the best teams – if not the best – in program history.

That’s why the University of Maine’s women’s basketball team is far from satisfied after navigating the challenges of the pandemic with a 16-2 record and a regular-season conference title.

“We know we have a special team and we want to do something really special,” said fifth-year senior Blanca Millán of Spain, already regarded as one of the best ever to wear a Maine uniform.

That’s why Dor Saar of Israel, a four-year starter at point guard, and senior forward Maeve Carroll of Virginia are not going to be content with beating the University of Albany on Sunday, which would allow Maine to advance to the America East Tournament championship game for the sixth straight year.

They aren’t even going to be fully satisfied by qualifying for their third NCAA tournament appearance in four years, which they can do by beating Albany and then taking down either Stony Brook or UMass-Lowell in the league’s title game on Friday.

They want to match the accomplishment their coach, Amy Vachon, achieved during her playing days at the University of Maine. They want to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Maybe even two.

“We’ve always talked about how (Vachon) was on the only team at Maine that made it past the first round of March Madness,” said Carroll. “That’s one of our goals, to be another Maine team that makes it past the first round.”

“As seniors we haven’t experienced that yet and we’re at the point where we really do think we can,” said Saar.

Millán wants even more.

“Since the season started for sure we wanted to win the regular season and win the playoffs to make it to the NCAA tournament, and once we’re there our goal is definitely to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.”

Maine’s is the most successful women’s basketball program in the history of the America East Conference, which dates back to 1985. The Black Bears have won nine conference tournament championships, three more than runner-ups Albany and Vermont.

Six of those titles came in the 1990s, when the women’s basketball program played second fiddle to men’s ice hockey. Under the late Shawn Walsh, Maine hockey dominated the headlines, winning NCAA championships in 1993 and 1999.

Now, women’s basketball is the standard-bearer for Maine athletics.

“I think that’s fair to say because they have been able to sustain excellence and that’s what we’re really looking for,” said Ken Ralph, Maine’s athletic director.

LESSONS FROM NCAA LOSSES

Point guard Dor Saar brings the ball down court during the 2019 America East championship game against Hartford. Saar, who is from Israel, is among several foreign recruits who have sparked Maine’s success in recent years. Portland Press Herald photo by Ben McCanna

The reason for optimism and high expectations this season is that Maine has five seniors among its top six players, and each has already been to the NCAA tournament twice.

The program’s success in recent years has been fueled by international talent. Millán and key reserve Fanny Wadling of Sweden are fifth-year seniors. Both are back for a final run after injuries (knee for Millán, concussion for Wadling) sidelined them last season and allowed Maine to petition the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility.

Millán has been better than ever. She became the first woman in America East history to twice be named both the Player of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-1 guard ranks 15th in the nation in scoring and is the team’s leading rebounder.

Saar, Carroll and shooting guard Kelly Fogarty of Walpole, Massachusetts, came to Orono in 2017. That season was Vachon’s first as the head coach, though she wore the interim tag until the eve of the conference tournament. Vachon had taken over midway through the 2016-17 season when Richard Barron (now the men’s coach) needed to take a medical leave.

Maine earned its first NCAA bid since 2004 in Vachon’s first season, winning the America East tournament to gain the conference’s automatic bid. Maine was a No. 15 seed (16 is the lowest). They were sent to the University of Texas, where they met the No. 2 Longhorns on their home court and, not surprisingly, were blown out.

The next season produced another America East title, and another NCAA first round loss, but this one much closer at North Carolina State, the 10th-ranked team in the country.

Saar said as freshmen, just a few minutes into the Texas game she realized “the level of differences between our teams were really, really high and there was no chance we could beat them.”

As sophomores, that sense of awe was decreased.

Now, “we are a really good team and we can beat another good team,” Saar said.

For Carroll, a recent photo shoot where the seniors were surrounded by the trophies, plaques, and certificates commemorating team and individual accolades crystallized what this team has accomplished.

“I knew how talented our class was but it wasn’t until Senior Day when I really realized, we’re going to be a class that Maine women’s basketball will remember forever.”

Last season the wins came harder. With Millán and Wadling out with injuries, Maine started off 8-14, then won 10 straight games and qualified for the America East final before the pandemic shut down sports.

That experience forced players like Carroll, Saar and Anne Simon to grow. Simon, a sophomore from Luxembourg, is Maine’s second-leading scorer and was a first-team conference selection this season. Having the championship game at Stony Brook canceled – after Maine had taken a ferry to reach Long Island, New York – steeled the team’s resolve to return and improve.

“That’s the goal every season, don’t get me wrong,” Carroll said. “But ever since we went on that bus trip to Stony Brook and they canceled that whole championship, just because of those circumstances, we’ve been determined, we’re just going to win a conference championship.”

DIRECT LINK TO THE PAST

University of Maine Coach Amy Vachon huddles with her team during a 2018 game against Duke in Bangor. Vachon has been named America East Coach of the Year three times. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Amy Vachon is the thread that binds past to present for the women’s basketball program.

As a point guard, the Augusta native was the critical guiding force when Maine beat perennial power Stanford in the first round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament. It remains Maine’s only NCAA basketball tournament win.

Since taking over as Maine’s head coach, Vachon has won America East Coach of the Year honors three times, including this season.

“I’m not surprised she’s such a good coach. She could bring the whole together,” said Joanne P. McCallie, who was Vachon’s coach at Maine prior to successful stints at Michigan State and Duke.

McCallie oversaw the gold standard stretch of Maine women’s basketball. She finished her eight-season tenure in Orono in 1999-2000 with a seventh straight 20-win season and sixth straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

In 1999, Maine no longer had all-time leading scorer Cindy Blodgett, the slender 5-foot-9 folk hero from tiny Clinton, Maine, who had turned the women’s basketball games into a must-watch event. But the Black Bears did have juniors Vachon and Jamie Cassidy, a 6-foot-3 center whom McCallie termed “the best post player” in Maine’s history.

They also had a better draw than previous years. In three of Blodgett’s four NCAA trips, Maine had to play a much higher-seeded team on its home court. In 1999, Maine was a No. 10 seed against No. 7 Stanford, which had a modest 18-11 record. The game was at Old Dominion University.

McCallie says Vachon “pretty much masterminded how to beat Stanford on the court. It had never been done before (by an America East team), to win in the first round. … Amy has made history as a player and now she’s trying to join that history and beat that history as a coach.”

COMPARING SUCCESS ACROSS ERAS

Coach Joanne P. McCallie speaks with Cindy Blodgett during a 1997 exhibition game in Orono. McCallie led Maine to six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 1995 to 2000, four of them with Blodgett as the star. Portland Press Herald file photo

Coaches hate to compare teams across eras. And, to be fair, the 2020-21 team can’t be fairly judged until its season is over.

McCallie said if Maine meets Millán’s goal of reaching the Sweet Sixteen, then it at least has to be called the greatest tournament team in program history.

Vachon says this year’s seniors have already left their mark as “leaders, competitors, great, great people and students.”

Getting through a season during a pandemic wasn’t easy, either.

“I know from my vantage point as a coach it’s been a really hard year and you can say no team has ever gone through something like this,” Vachon said.

Even devout fans like Rich and Marian Dressler of Glenburn find it difficult to decide which of Maine’s women’s basketball teams should be called the best. Marian, 79, worked as an administrative assistant in the women’s basketball office from 1998 to 2007, and the couple have been season ticket holders since the early 1990s. They’ve traveled across the country to see the team play, gone to NCAA tournament games, and even made international trips to Italy and Greece with the team.

“I would put them in the top three teams that have ever played here, but we’ve had some really good teams,” Rich Dressler said. “They’re definitely up there because they have the potential to go to the NCAA and win a couple games.”

“We’ve been fortunate to have so many good teams I couldn’t pick out one from another,” Marian Dressler said. “Plus, I was the one in the office; if there was an issue, I was often the mother away from home. We still get some late-night phone calls from the West Coast.”

From a pure win-loss standpoint, the Cindy Blodgett years were the best.

From 1994-95 through 1997-98 seasons, Maine went 94-28 overall, a .770 winning percentage. They knocked off No. 10 Alabama during the regular season when Blodgett was a freshman. They were even better in conference play with a 62-8 regular-season record, three regular-season titles, four conference tournament championships and four trips to the NCAA tournament.

Vachon and Cassidy were on hand for the final two years of Blodgett’s remarkable run. They then extended it with two more NCAA bids, including the win against Stanford. Their senior class had a combined 87-35 record (.713), 61-11 in America East.

The current seniors are a combined 82-34 (.707), 53-10 in the conference.

Members of the Maine women’s basketball team celebrate after winning the 2019 America East championship game and its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. In the fall 2020 semester, the team posted a combined GPA of 3.91 – the highest among the school’s 17 varsity programs. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Today, it’s the women’s basketball program leading the way for UMaine athletics.

Ralph, the athletic director, said he and Vachon recently had a conversation about how to make “folks” realize they can succeed at the University of Maine.

“That stretches through the entire community,” Ralph said. “We want recruits to realize they can come here and be successful. We want coaches to realize that they can elevate their programs. We don’t want anyone to be complacent. You can come to Maine and be able to win championships and women’s basketball is an example of that.”

And the current women’s team has also shown success can come off the court, from tackling social justice issues to demonstrating the ability to blend a melting pot of nationalities and cultures. The team posted a combined GPA of 3.91 in the fall semester this year – the highest among the school’s 17 varsity programs, all of which topped 3.0.

“It’s really a fascinating group of women and they have coalesced around being successful in everything they do,” Ralph said.

It is a group that will soon be separating. The NCAA has granted all basketball players an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic, but as of now only Carroll is expected to return from the senior class. Millán is ready to turn pro, either in the WNBA or in Europe. Wadling is already finishing a master’s degree. Saar has to fulfill her obligatory two years of military service in Israel and she wants to pursue a professional playing career, “and I think Kelly’s ready,” Vachon said.

“I’m 99.9 percent sure (other than Carroll) they are going to take the next step in their lives,” Vachon said.

But they haven’t left yet.

“Our goals are not completed and the most important part of the season hasn’t happened yet. Our goal is to do the best we can and make some history,” Millán said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.