ORONO — Head coach Amy Vachon looks at the roster of primarily freshmen and sophomores, and she smiles.

“I don’t know how many people expect a lot out of us this year, and that’s great. We love it,” Vachon, an Augusta native entering her fifth full season as head coach of the University of Maine women’s basketball team, said following Tuesday’s practice.

University of Maine’s Anne Simon (3) drives to the basket as teammate Paula Gallego (15) defends during practice Tuesday at the Pit on campus at the University of Maine in Orono. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Coming off a season abbreviated by the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Bears are as inexperienced as they’ve been under Vachon.

Gone are two-time America East Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Blanca Millan and all-conference point guard Dor Saar, as well as a handful of key veteran role players. Maine’s roster features five freshmen and five sophomores — including Mt. Blue graduate Lexi Mittelstadt, a former walk-on who last month was given a full scholarship — and those young players will need to learn on the job if the Black Bears are to remain among the top teams in America East.

Maine opens the season at Nebraska on Nov. 9, and will play its first home game Nov. 13 against Providence on campus in the Pit. The Black Bears’ first game since the 2019-2020 season on their usual home court at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center is scheduled for Nov. 15 vs. Delaware.

“I have never played in the Cross Center, and I’m so excited to see everything in there,” said sophomore guard Alba Orois, the heir apparent to Saar at point guard.

Each of Maine’s home games last season was played in an empty Pit. Having fans back in the stands is something the team is looking forward to.

University of Maine’s Adrianna Smith (33) boxes out teammate Maeve Carroll (5) during practice Tuesday at the Pit on campus at the University of Maine in Orono. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“We missed the fans here in the Pit. It’s not the same without the fans,” said junior guard Anne Simon, the leading returning scorer who averaged 12.5 points per game last season.

Added Vachon: “Last year for us put everything in perspective and made us more grateful for what we’re able to do to play.”

Maine went 17-3 last season, and reached the conference championship game for the sixth consecutive season, falling to Stony Brook in what would also have been the conference final matchup in 2020 had the game not been canceled in the early days of the pandemic. The Black Bears averaged just over 66 points per game, but 40 points per game, including Millan’s 21.4, are gone. Simon and forward Maeve Carroll, back for a fifth season, could provide more scoring punch. They’ll definitely provide leadership.

“I’ve kind of been with the same group for four years. Now it’s a completely different group. It’s nice to step into the role of being the person who’s leading everyone. It’s new and exciting,” said Carroll, a second-team all conference selection last season after averaging 10.7 points per game, said. “It’s so important to get (the younger players) on the same page as everyone and get them comfortable with the offense. I’ve never had to be the person who is teaching everyone.”

It’s been a work in progress getting the young players up to speed, Vachon said, and it will continue to be so. This has been a preseason of teaching the basics of Maine’s offense from the ground up as opposed to fine tuning with the vetern teams of recent seasons. There’s not a leadership void, Vachon said, citing Carroll’s experience as a fifth-year player and Simon’s experience in international competition playing for her native Luxembourg.

“It has its good days and it has its learning days, but it’s a lot of fun. They’re full of energy and want to learn,” Vachon said. “When you have that culture and those standards, the younger players, they have no choice but to fall right into place. If they don’t, they’re not going to make it.”

Orois is coming along well at the point, Vachon said. As a freshman last season, Orois played in all 20 games, averaging 3.6 points and just under an assist per game.

University of Maine women’s basketball coach Amy, left, Vachon talks with Courtney England, associate head coach, during practice Tuesday at the Pit on campus at the University of Maine in Orono. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

“People who think you’re going to see another Dor out there are going to be wrong. Because she’s not. She has a lot of different great attributes and different strengths, and she’s been doing a really good job,” Vachon said.

Orois said she hopes to emulate Saar’s leadership and ability to bring energy to the Black Bears.

“Last year we had five seniors, and it was my time to learn. I need to prove what I learned last year. This year I have a more important role, and I’m ready to take it,” Orois said.

Simon said this season reminds her of 2019-2020, her freshman season. That year, the Black Bears lost a number of players to injury, including Millan, and played in a conference semifinal win over UMass-Lowell with just eight players. Nobody expected the Black Bears to do anything that season, Simon said.

“Our goal is still to win the (conference) championship. I like being the underdog, I’m not going to lie. I think my freshman year, nobody expected anything from us and we made it to the final game,” Simon said.

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