University of Maine women’s basketball fans were probably puzzled by the fact the team was recently picked to finish sixth in America East after making it to the America East Tournament’s championship game the past two years.

And after the team was thumped by Division II Stonehill College (Massachusetts) in an exhibition game 68-49, on Oct. 28, UMaine fans were really perplexed.

Interim head coach Amy Vachon and her players haven’t forgotten that poor performance. It has served a very early wake-up call.

“It was not a great effort on our part. It was disappointing. Stonehill deserved to beat us. They were the better team,” said Vachon, who is in her second season filling in for head coach Richard Barron, who remains on medical leave.

“Our kids have really taken that performance to heart. They have worked real hard the last couple of weeks and we had a real good day [in a scrimmage] at Syracuse on Saturday,” Vachon said.

“We can’t expect to just show up [and win]. We’ve got to put the effort in and be willing to compete,” junior forward Tanesha Sutton said. “Our practices have been more competitive [since the Stonehill game] and our effort has been great. We have been more aggressive and we showed it in the Syracuse scrimmage.”

For the second straight season, the Black Bear roster is undergoing a major upheaval.

Seven players have departed off last year’s 18-16 team, including five who transferred.

One of the transfers was forward Laia Sole, the team’s No. 2 scorer (11.3 ppg) and No. 3 rebounder (4.1 rpg) who was an All-AE Rookie Team choice as well as the recipient of the league’s Sixth Player Award.

Seven players have returned but just four saw significant playing time a year ago.

There are five newcomers and Van Buren’s Parise Rossignol, who saw limited duty for two seasons before taking a year off last season, has returned.

“I think fans will enjoy this team,” Vachon said.

Sophomore forward Fanny Wadling said all of the returnees are going to have more significant roles and “we’re all going to have to contribute more” than they did last year.

The Black Bears will have to replace three-time first team All-America East point guard Sigi Koizar, who departed as the school’s sixth all-time leading scorer with 1,671 points. She led last year’s team in scoring (14.1 points per game) and was second in rebounds (4.5 rpg), assists (2.4) and steals (1.8).

The heir apparent is 5-foot-6 freshman Dor Saar from the Israeli Basketball Academy. She led her U-18, U-16 and U-14 teams to Israeli national championships.

“She is a very good point guard,” Vachon said. “She is really smart. Syracuse pressed us the whole game and she handled it fantastically.”

“She is doing a tremendous job,” Sutton said.

Sophomore guard Julie Brosseau, who led the team with 59 3-pointers and averaged 7.6 ppg, and Rossignol also will be helping Saar run the offense, according to Vachon.

“Julie can shoot the three and she also had a beautiful two-dribble pull-up. She has worked really hard to get better defensively,” Vachon said. “Parise has had a great preseason. Taking the year off has re-ignited that passion. She worked harder than ever in the offseason.”

“I’ve worked on my dribbling and attacking the rim more,” Brosseau said. “My defense has gotten better, too. My feet are quicker thanks to our lifting program.”

The three returning starters are Sutton, Wadling and sophomore Blanca Millan.

The 6-1 Wadling is a forward who averaged five points and four rebounds per game; the 6-1 Millan (8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.7 apg and a team-leading 61 steals) is a multi-purpose guard who was chosen to the AE All-Rookie team and the 5-10 Sutton is a small forward who led the team in rebounding (4.8 rpg) and assists (2.6 apg) and also averaged 7.4 ppg.

Millan was chosen to the AE All-Rookie team.

“Tanesha can play a lot of positions for us. She’s very versatile,” Vachon said. “Fanny could lead our team in assists this year.“

Millan is a well-rounded player who can score, rebound and handle the ball.

“I’ve been working on my 3-pointers and I’m always working on my dribbling. I want to get better at everything,” Millan said.

Six-foot-2 senior forward Kirsten Johnson, who averaged five minutes a game, could get more playing time and will be called upon to provide the Black Bears with a presence in the paint as will freshmen Maeve Carroll (5-11), Kira Barra (6-3) and Kat Williams (6-5).

Freshman sharp-shooter Kelly Fogarty will supply an outside scoring threat and Maddy McVicar from Calais and Sierra Tapley from Bar Harbor, a junior and a sophomore, respectively, will provide depth at the guard spot.

There are many question marks for this team.

Can the Black Bears hold their own on the boards? Who will produce points in the paint? How long will it take the freshmen to learn the system? Can they improve on their 29.8 percent 3-point shooting from a year ago?

Vachon feels her team has the potential to be “very good defensively.”

Their non-conference schedule is among the toughest in the country with the likes of NCAA runner-up Mississippi State and NCAA Tournament teams Duke, Miami (Florida) and Ohio State. There are nine non-conference games against teams that played in a postseason tourney.

They will take their lumps early and they can’t let that stunt their development. Expect inconsistency because it is such a young team.

But that gruelling non-conference schedule will prepare them well for the America East schedule.

UMaine will open the season against Tulane University (Louisiana) in the Tip-Off Tournament at 6 p.m. Friday at the Memorial Gym in Orono and will take on either Dayton or Harvard the next day in Orono.

The Bears are opening in Orono because the Maine Harvest Festival is scheduled at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, UMaine’s home-court for the rest of the season.

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