Joanne Palombo-McCallie witnessed Cindy Blodgett’s playing career from two different front-row seats.
First she successfully recruited the soft-spoken guard from Clinton to the University of Maine, and later McCallie coached Blodgett and the Black Bears’ women’s basketball team to the program’s first four NCAA Tournament appearances.
The 1990s marked an era of unprecedented interest in girls’ and women’s basketball around the state, first with sold-out crowds in high school gyms throughout Eastern Maine and at tournament settings as Blodgett scored a state-record 2,596 points while leading Lawrence High School of Fairfield to an 84-4 record and four consecutive Class A state championships from 1991 to 1994.
So transcendent was Blodgett’s basketball persona that the state’s 1994 Miss Basketball had two books written about her before she graduated.
“Westbrook had won four straight state titles (1987-1980) with Lisa Blais and that was incredible,” McCallie said earlier this week. “But the difference was the way the entire state embraced Cindy. She was just a hero. She was a little girl’s hero and a little boy’s hero, it transcended gender. Everyone loved Cindy.
“She was a cult of personality. She was the definition of that,” added McCallie, herself a two-time Bangor Daily News All-Maine first-team guard from Brunswick High School and a 1983 Parade All-American.
On Sunday both Blodgett and McCallie returned home, with McCallie introducing Blodgett as part of the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018 during an induction ceremony at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center.
Blodgett was joined in the fifth induction class by a fellow Lawrence player and longtime coach Brenda Beckwith, ex-Colby College star Paul Belanger, longtime former Mt. Blue of Farmington coach Jim Bessey, former Jonesport-Beals and UMaine star Sandi Carver, former Medomak Valley of Waldoboro and Brown University player Dean Erickson, ex-Milo High School and Ricker College standout Peter Hamlin, and veteran Camden Hills of Rockport coach Jeff Hart.
Also, former Freeport High School and Duke University player Barbara Krause, longtime northern Maine high school coach Bill McAvoy, former Maine basketball commissioner and Husson University president and basketball coach Delmont “Del” Merrill, one-time University of Southern Maine athletic standout and Kennebunk High School coach Bill Obermeyer, former Bucksport High School and Husson University center Keith Ogden, legendary Bangor High School athletic standout Leroy Patterson, longtime Portland High School coach Joe Russo, and Morse High School of Bath and University of Maine star Rick Woods.
Entering the hall as Legends of the Game were former University of New England coach and athletic director Jim Beaudry, longtime high school coach and administrator and Eastern Maine tournament director Bill Fletcher, veteran Caribou High School athletic administrator Dwight Hunter, former Sumner of East Sullivan standout Elwood “Bimbo” Pinkham, former Cleveland Cavaliers president Thaxter Trafton and former Brunswick High and UMaine player and longtime high school administrator Arthur Warren.
The undefeated 1960 Lewiston state championship boys basketball team was also inducted.
Patterson, Merrill and Warren were posthumously inducted.
Once Blodgett took her game to the state university, the scene for the sellout crowds may have changed but not the intensity of the interest as the slightly built guard outworked, outhustled and outplayed more physically gifted opponents to the tune of 3,005 career points and All-American status while leading the University of Maine to America East conference supremacy.
“I used to stand in Alfond (Arena) in a space outside the locker room before the games and I could look out the window and see the cars coming down the road,” said McCallie. “It was amazing upon Cindy’s commitment to come to Maine how the cars just kept coming, the headlights just kept coming.”
Blodgett went on to become a first-round draft pick of the WNBA’s Cleveland Rockers in 1998 and also played in that league with the Sacramento Monarchs before going abroad to compete professionally in South Korea and France. She also played with the Springfield (Massachusetts) Spirit of the National Women’s Basketball League.
“It was a joy to recruit her, it was a joy to recruit her family, and to see her through that experience and then to see the effect it has had on the program was wonderful, said McCallie, now entering her 12th year as head women’s basketball coach at Duke University. “Being able to induct Cindy into the hall of fame is in a sense coming full circle.”
More recently Blodgett turned to coaching, including four years as head coach at her alma mater (2007-2011) along with stints as an assistant at Brown University, the University of Rhode Island and Boston University.
Blodgett’s playing career in Maine is of legendary status, from joining her local middle-school basketball team as a third-grader to her storied stops at Lawrence and UMaine.
Young players around the state imitated her dynamic dribbling if not her one-of-a-kind jump shot, and there was universal appreciation of her relentless quest to become her best.
“I’ve known very few student-athletes to ever work as hard as Cindy worked individually on her game,” said McCallie. “First came her work ethic, her desire and her love of the game. And then the fact she’s such a competitor, she just never had any doubt. It was like she was born to show that Mainers could compete at the highest levels.”
Blodgett averaged 29.5 points per game during an 88-game high school career that included a 16-0 tournament record under Lawrence head coach Bruce Cooper.
“Some of the games they had with Cony and (current UMaine head coach) Amy (Vachon) were special,” said McCallie. “She felt an enormous amount of pride for her program and coach Cooper, she really loved her time at Lawrence and I know it was hard for her to leave something that was so special for her and her family.”
Notre Dame and Colorado were among the other Division I universities most active in recruiting Blodgett, but ultimately her home-state university offered her the best chance to continue defying the odds at the collegiate level.
It didn’t take her and the Black Bears long to make that point. On Jan. 5, 1995, UMaine hosted the No. 10-ranked and undefeated University of Alabama, and as McCallie awaited the start of the game the headlights were more in abundance than ever.
“The cars just kept streaming into the Alfond parking lot,” she said. “I could just see them turning in and turning in and I had not seen that before. I’d never seen that kind of commitment by the people of the state who were driving from hours away for a game like that.”
Those fans went home elated, as UMaine rebounded from an 8-0 deficit to upset the Crimson Tide 75-73 behind 30 points from the freshman Blodgett.
“It was really the symbolic victory that said the University of Maine can truly be on the map for women’s basketball and compete nationally,” said McCallie. “Cindy was the catalyst, the impetus, the person who made people believers. People wondered if she could come from high school to college and make that much of an impact and she delivered.”
UMaine went on to win four consecutive America East championships, with Blodgett named conference MVP twice and conference tournament MVP all four years.
Blodgett also led NCAA Division I in scoring as both a sophomore (27.8 ppg) and junior (27.0 ppg), with her career point total one of 18 school records she still holds.
UMaine went 94-28 overall with Blodgett’s wearing the now-retired No. 14, and while the Black Bears did not win an NCAA Tournament game with her on the court that stretch of success set the stage for the team to earn an at-large bid to the 1999 NCAAs where it scored a first-round upset of Stanford University — the program’s only NCAA tournament victory to date.
“It was something we talked about during the recruiting process, something that was planned,” said McCallie. “The word was ‘Cindy, if you come to the University of Maine we have Alfond Arena, we will sell it out, you will be an enormous part of selling the uniform and you’ll have an opportunity of spreading the good word about what Mainers can accomplish.’”
But even Blodgett had her limits, particularly when it came to the team’s mile-and-a-half training run.
“It was six laps around the track because it takes six games to win a national title, but she fought me on it because she despised running and didn’t see how it fit in,” said McCallie.
Blodgett finally relented and brought a stopwatch with her to the training run.
“She asked, ‘Can I run with this?’ and I said, ‘Of course,’ McCallie recalled. “So she’s got this stopwatch with her and the cutoff time for the mile-and-a-half was 10:30 and I believe she finished in 10:29. It was sort of like saying, ‘OK, I’m on board, I’m all in, but I hate that run.’
“Cindy just had a mental toughness about her that can only come from time spent alone working on her game. Her work ethic was unprecedented, and it continues to be to this day.”