Former Gorham High star Emily Esposito went on to play basketball at Villanova and Boston University. She has created a website called EMpowerment that prominently features the title, “The Reality of College Athletics.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

After five years of college basketball at two universities, playing for three head coaches, former Gorham High star Emily Esposito has some advice she wishes she could give her teenage self. Advice she thinks any high school recruit should hear.

“Don’t be sold a lie. Don’t let coaches tell you everything you want to hear. Press them a little bit,” said Esposito, who played at Villanova University before transferring to Boston University. “I wish I had been more bold and brave to use my voice.”

While some college athletes will reach their teenage dreams of championships and all-star status, for most, the experience is more mundane. Hours of practice time and strength training. Mandatory study halls. Constant competition for playing time. Setbacks and injuries. The wins and bonds with teammates are still rewarding, and lifetime memories will be forged. But, especially at the NCAA Division I level, college sports are a business and the athletes are often expendable.

And the demands can be overwhelming, according to five athletes from Maine who have lived the ups and downs of college playing careers.

“If I could tell high school athletes one thing, it’s a huge time commitment between morning workouts, going to class, a mandatory study hour for eight hours a week, and then you have practices and other team requirements. Every day is a busy day,” said wrestler Bradley Beaulieu, who spent his freshman year at Division I Old Dominion before transferring to the University of Southern Maine.

“With college, playing a sport and wanting to have a social life is challenging all at once,” said Terion Moss, who played basketball at the University of Maine as a freshman and is now starring at Division III UMaine-Farmington.

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“The biggest thing is, you just have to love it,” said Raffaele Salamone, who is about to embark on his sixth season with the UMaine football team. “One of the biggest things I’ve learned so far, just doing the minimum isn’t going to cut it. The other guys on your own team are too good and the competition is just too good.”

‘MY WORTH WAS TIED TO HOW I PERFORMED’

Esposito is no longer shy about expressing her feelings about her own struggles to find her niche in a Division I athletic program. She has created an online platform called EMpowerment to help college athletes – and those who aspire to play in college – learn about and deal with the pressures and demands. The home page of her website has a prominent title: The Reality of College Athletics.

She said her initiative, which she hopes to build into a nonprofit organization, boils down to two key ideas: That athletes need to believe their identity is greater than their last performance; and, for the benefit of their own mental health and personal growth, athletes should “show their story with their own voice.”

Emily Esposito led Gorham High to two Class AA state championships and was named Miss Maine Basketball as a senior. She accepted an athletic scholarship from Villanova, and later transferred to Boston University. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“When I was younger, all I cared about was basketball and the status of the team and the record of the team and the accolades and the trophies and the awards,” said Esposito, who earned such recognition while leading Gorham to back-to-back Class AA state titles and being named Miss Maine Basketball.

But when she got to college, her playing career stalled. After redshirting as a freshman, she showed flashes of her talent during her second season at Villanova but grew increasingly unhappy off the court. She stopped going to classes and became withdrawn. A bad practice would ruin her day.

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“My worth was tied to how I would perform. Everything was tied to that because I didn’t think I had anything else to offer,” Esposito said.

Esposito transferred to Boston University in the summer of 2019. She had to sit out the 2019-20 season because of the NCAA transfer rules at the time, plus she was injured. Then came the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season. Though her basketball career was still idled, Esposito says her emotional health flourished under BU Coach Marisa Moseley and through therapy, and she felt primed to have a strong senior season on a team capable of winning the Patriot League in 2021-22.

But Moseley left BU to become the head coach at Wisconsin. Esposito says she found it difficult to connect with her new coach, Melissa Graves. While Esposito started all 19 games she played this winter, her production and then her playing time dwindled after the holiday break. On Feb. 7, two days after going scoreless in just eight minutes of action, she had a meeting with Graves. The meeting ended with Esposito deciding to quit the team. In her final season, she averaged 6.4 points and 3.1 rebounds.

“In the moment I was sad, disappointed, frustrated, but part of that was that I felt I had to feel that way,” Esposito said. “Because in a sense, I was losing my identity and people would think I was crazy if I walked away without sad, distraught emotions.

“But it was ironic – and I hate the word quit – but I view it as walking away from a situation that was no longer serving me and I was no longer serving it, and why keep that going? And that was the most empowering moment of my career.”

Esposito said she wants to remain in the game as a coach. She also intends to invest her full energies into growing the EMpowerment platform to help other college athletes be able to navigate the demands of their sports.

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“There is this great community to be built around college athletics but just needs to be fostered in a more caring way, with more caring people, and I aspire to be one of those people one day.”

NCAA DIVISION I OR BUST?

Being able to play a sport in college is a dream for many high school athletes, one that often starts at a young age. Slightly more than 7 percent of high school athletes will reach that goal, according to NCAA Research statistics, with only about 2 percent playing at the Division I level.

To reach the Division I goal, high school athletes typically have to invest significant time, energy and money to improve their skills and get the needed exposure to college coaches. After all that effort, a Division I offer becomes difficult to pass up.

Bradley Beaulieu, right, won a state-record 248 matches while wrestling for Marshwood High. He accepted an athletic scholarship from Division I Old Dominion University, but left after one year and transferred to the University of Southern Maine. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“There was some pressure I had to go DI, or I was afraid what people would think if I didn’t. Maybe they’d think I wasn’t that good after all,” said Beaulieu, who set a Maine record with 248 match victories and won a New England Championship as a senior. “But it was also something I really wanted for myself and I worked hard.”

Moss, the Mr. Maine Basketball and Varsity Maine Player of the Year in 2018, said he had similar feelings when he signed with the University of Maine.

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“I feel like high school, my senior year, going Division I was the goal, even growing up,” Moss said.

Both Beaulieu and Moss said they struggled with time-management issues as freshmen. Beaulieu said as an 18-year-old, he didn’t have the maturity to ask for help. Moss admitted to being lonely and “I feel like I just went home way too much.”

Beaulieu was also having a hard time finding his spot on the Old Dominion team, in part because he was trying to cut weight to wrestle at 133 pounds after wrestling at 138 as a senior in high school.

Moss played a lot as a freshman at UMaine, averaging 27 minutes and starting 15 of the 29 games he played as the Black Bears went 5-27. He scored 13 points against both Utah and North Carolina State in early season games and had a 23-point effort against Stony Brook, one of the top teams in America East that season.

Terion Moss was named Mr. Maine Basketball as a senior at Portland High. Moss played at the University of Maine as a freshman, but left after one year. He has gone on to star at Division III UMaine-Farmington. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Neither returned to his Division I program as a sophomore. Both say they found a happier, more productive environment when they switched to Division III programs in their home state.

While injuries derailed Beaulieu from completing his final season this winter, he did qualify for the Division III national championship meet in 2020 before it was canceled by the pandemic. He’s finishing his degree work in secondary education at USM while student teaching in the Gorham school district. He hopes to be teaching middle or high school history next year.

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“A lot of high school athletes want to go D-I and that’s a great goal to have, but at the end of the day, you’re going to get the same experience at a smaller school,” Beaulieu said. “High school athletes should consider that. What I found, at the lower D-3 level, it’s still pretty tough no matter who you’re competing against.”

Moss still has one season of eligibility left at UMaine-Farmington after becoming the Beavers’ first National Association of Basketball Coaches All-District selection and averaging 27.0 points, 4.9 assists and 3.9 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the floor, 41.9 percent on 3-point attempts and 89.1 percent at the free-throw line.

“It was a great choice for me,” Moss said. “I can see myself way happier than I was at Orono because I got more comfortable here and I wasn’t too comfortable at Orono.”

Moss added: “At Maine, (you were) mostly surrounded by D-I athletes. So now I’m meeting people who have come here for school from different states. It’s a different experience for me and a good experience.”

PATIENCE CAN PAY OFF

For Salamone, 24, a former standout at Deering High, staying at one college has paid dividends. This fall, he will be entering his sixth season as a defensive lineman at UMaine – with one extra year because he redshirted as a freshman and another because the NCAA granted an added season of eligibility for athletes during the pandemic. It wasn’t until last fall that he played any significant minutes, appearing in every game and making a total of 16 tackles.

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“Those days when you’re not playing and waking up early for winter workouts and things aren’t looking too bright, you wonder, is this really for me?” Salamone said.

Raffaele Salamone gets a kiss from his grandmother, Dianne Salamone, after he signed a letter of intent to play football at the University of Maine in February 2017. The signing ceremony took place at Deering High. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Salamone said knowing his parents supported him – whether he stuck with football or not – helped immensely. So did the encouragement of older teammates.

“They told me to keep working and that it will all be worth it.”

Along the way, Salamone earned his undergraduate degree in marine biology and moved up to full scholarship status. Now he’s working on getting his master’s degree in business administration.

“Maine (let me know) to begin with that I was undersized and there was work to do and I kind of had to earn my spot,” said Salamone, who weighed 225 pounds coming out of high school and now is listed at 6-foot-3, 266 pounds. “And I just felt like this was the place to be. I’m a Maine kid. I enjoy it up here and have made some great friendships with the guys.”

He also believes the process has made him better prepared for life.

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“Just managing our time, learning to be selfless in an environment, putting the team first. I think that goes a long way in the work place.”

The intensity of college sports also strengthens the “hundreds of friendships,” he’s made with teammates, past and present. “The bonds you build with guys in the locker room, they’re special. I still talk to a lot of the guys that graduated when I was a freshman,” Salamone said.

Salamone’s teammate, Jack Webb, a 6-4, 340-pound lineman from Arundel and Thornton Academy, said finding a group you mesh with is essential. That’s why during the recruiting process, high schoolers need to be willing to ask the players, as well as the coaches, direct questions about a program’s culture and expectations. Webb spent his first two-plus years at Sacred Heart in Fairfield, Connecticut, before transferring to UMaine following the football-less fall of 2020.

“It’s good to know the room and kind of fit in with the culture that’s been set,” Webb said. “That’s something I’ve been lucky with in both places.”

Jack Webb played lacrosse and football at Thornton Academy, and began his college football career at Sacred Heart before transferring to the University of Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Webb did not play in 2021 after breaking his tibia and dislocating his ankle in a bicycle accident while on vacation in South Carolina. He hopes to be able to contribute this fall. Regardless, Webb said the value of college athletics is knowing he “is part of something bigger than yourself. My playing future is very unclear but, especially this semester, being on a team and coming to work every day and building those bonds, is something I cherish. If you do have the opportunity to play a college sport, it’s something that’s hard to pass up.”

But Webb acknowledged it is a path with challenges. He pointed to the NCAA Transfer Portal, which now allows athletes to shift schools within Division I without losing a year of eligibility, as one more factor that adds uncertainty and increases the competitive demands.

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“Talking to coaches about the old days, it used to be (as a player) you had to worry about the freshman class,” Webb said. “Now, they could bring someone in older than you, younger than you, from who knows where.”

A self-described social butterfly, Webb said he appreciates Esposito’s message about the importance of college athletes finding their best balance between player and person.

“Football never took over my whole life, and looking back, that might be one reason I didn’t develop as much as I might have as a player. That’s the balance,” Webb said.

“I think it’s really cool that Emily is doing this because it’s a side that doesn’t get talked about,” Webb said. “It does happen a lot across college sports in general. It’s awesome that Emily’s doing that and bringing light to it.”


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