ORONO, Maine — The resurgent University of Maine women’s basketball team hopes to make a run at its first America East championship since 2004 in the conference tournament, which begins Saturday at Vestal, New York.
The Black Bears have achieved their recent success with a roster that includes seven international players.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s never boring because you’re always learning something new,” said junior Liz Wood of Catlett, Virginia.
Fourth-year head coach Richard Barron has assembled the group during the last three years, including seven players recruited in 2012. The European contingent features players from Austria, Finland, Sweden, Germany, England, Serbia and Greece.
UMaine, the league regular-season co-champs, includes two players each from Maine and California and one apiece from Virginia, Kentucky and Utah.
It has been an eye-opener for freshman Parise Rossignol of Van Buren.
“I had never been on a plane before this season, so I don’t really see that many people from different places, so coming here and being teammates and good friends with all these people is a really cool experience,” Rossignol said.
Before last season, UMaine had never had more than five international players on the squad (1997-98, 1999-2000).
The seven foreign students on this year’s team is not only the most in program history, but defies the national trend. According to NCAA statistics for 2013-14, there were only 215 nonresident aliens (international students) among 4,900 Division I women’s basketball players (4.4 percent).
UMaine’s complement of six last season represented 2.7 percent of all international students. The 349 Division I teams averaged just 0.6 nonresident aliens.
Barron arrived at UMaine in 2011 after the program languished with a 24-94 record in four seasons under Cindy Blodgett. Within a year, only three of the 13 players on his first team remained on the active roster.
Three graduated, one gave up basketball, another was dismissed from the team and two transferred. Three holdovers were battling chronic injuries that would end or derail their careers.
That left nine available scholarships for 2012-13, and Barron opted for a total and immediate overhaul.
“You could either endure more losses and try to build [gradually], or you could go ahead and bring in some bodies and make the change,” he said.
Barron tapped into his extensive recruiting experience. First, he landed Wood, Lauren Bodine from Kentucky and Indiana’s Brittany Wells (who transferred after one season).
In March 2012, Barron made a two-week recruiting sweep through Europe. It included stops in Italy, Latvia, Belgium, Serbia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Israel. The trip, he said, provided easier and more immediate access to more high-caliber players than he possibly could have seen in the U.S.
When classes began that August, Sophie Weckstrom (Finland), Mikaela Gustafsson (Sweden), Anna Heise (Germany), Chantel Charles (England), Milica Mitrovic (Serbia) and Michal Assaf (Israel) were on campus.
“I’ve never heard of anybody having as big a [recruiting] class as we had,” Barron said. “We were just looking for players that were going to help us get better.”
Seven of the players signed for 2012 comprise the nucleus of the current squad. Only Wells and Assaf, who as a freshman was drafted into the Israeli army, departed.
Barron’s pitch was simple and honest: UMaine, a once-proud and successful program, was starting over. It needed women who were willing to embrace the challenge of rebuilding.
“He basically asked me if I wanted to be part of changing the culture, and I thought it was really interesting, so I said yeah, I would like that,” Heise said.
Some were attracted by the potential to earn playing time right away and to team up with fellow Europeans.
“I liked the idea of having eight more freshmen with me, so that was kind of cool,” said Mitrovic, who admitted that she had never heard of Maine before being contacted by Barron.
The international influx continued last season when UMaine added Sigi Koizar, an Austrian who had spent a year as an exchange student at Stearns High School in Millinocket.
This season, Christiana Gerostergiou of Thessaloniki, Greece, joined the program along with junior college transfer Bella Swan of Farmington, Utah, and freshmen Kirsten Johnson of San Diego, California, and Janessa Fauntroy of Gaithersburg, Maryland, who has not been with the team since December.
“I think the quality of the people [at UMaine] and the quality of the kids shines through and that’s going to attract like-minded people,” Barron said.
Talking the talk
Bringing together such a diverse cast meant some cultural shock for the Europeans. Like most of their American teammates, they are a long way from home and family.
“I was not used to not being able to call my mom whenever I wanted to,” said Heise, who said that Germany is six hours ahead of Maine.
Most arrived in Orono able to speak English well, but during the first year, some international players did not always understand what was being said in practice.
“There were some words I had never heard before,” Heise said. “I was always in the back, trying to look to the American players to see what they were doing.”
“In [the] beginning it was kind of hard talking in other language, but I got used to it,” Mitrovic said.
While English is universal among UMaine players, other languages include Swedish, German, Serbian and Greek. Swedish is the primary language spoken by both Gustafsson and Weckstrom.
“I don’t speak Finnish any more,” said Weckstrom, who comes from a coastal area of the country where Swedish is spoken.
“It’s only 5 percent of the [Finnish] people that speak Swedish,” she said.
German is the native language for both Koizar and Heise, while Gerostergiou grew up bilingual in Greece as her mother is from England. She admits occasionally using a choice word in Greek to voice her frustration.
“Yeah, sometimes. No one understands, so it’s easier that way,” Gerostergiou joked.
The Americans conceded their foreign language skills are limited. Sophomore Sheraton Jones of Anaheim Hills, California, said she knows some Spanish, and Rossignol understands French, which is spoken by her parents and grandparents, but doesn’t speak it fluently.
Wood, who previously roomed with Gustafsson, lives with Heise and Weckstrom.
“I’ve tried to learn some Swedish, but I’m not getting very far,” Wood said. “All I know how to say is, ‘I love you,’ and ‘what are we having for dinner?’”
A winning combination
After the Black Bears posted a 4-24 record in the 2012-13 season, they enjoyed one of the best turnarounds in the country last year, posting a 17-12 record. The improvement has continued.
“These kids play so hard and they play so well together, it’s a lot of fun to watch,” said University of Maryland Baltimore County head coach Phil Stern.
There are few stars on the team, with only Wood having earned all-conference recognition, although Koizar also has emerged as a top-level performer in America East.
“He didn’t really recruit the best one-one-one players, but he recruited players that worked really well on a team,” Wood said of Barron. “Once we adjusted to our roles and really stepped into them with confidence, that’s when we started to see success.”
UMaine players unanimously point to the team’s chemistry as the key dynamic in its success. They are willing to work hard not for individual success but for the good of the team.
“It’s definitely a very highly motivated group of people and a really selfless group of people that just want everyone to do well,” Anderson said.
“[Barron] created a culture in the type of people that he brought here and that brought us all together in a way that has worked out nicely,” Anderson said.
The Black Bears continue to thrive on the shared experience of coming from afar to pursue their basketball and educational dreams at UMaine.
“We have to make this our new home. I think that’s what we do,” Koizar said.