The University of Maine women’s basketball team is filled with plenty of raw talent, but they have been faced with the task to work around a lack of experience that comes with a young team. In order for the team to come together this season, it has been important for the few veteran players on the squad to take on more prominent roles as leaders. No player has embraced the increased responsibility more than sophomore forward Danielle Walczak.
“It has been an interesting adjustment for me to be a sophomore and be one of the oldest on the team. You realize, when you have so many freshmen, how much you really learn as a freshman,” Walczak said. “We do our best to share those experiences with the freshmen so they can learn as much as they can.”
Walczak, a 2011 America East All-Rookie squad selection, knows the growing pains her nine freshman teammates are going through from firsthand experience. Being in their position last year, Walcak understands how important it is for her to help her teammates out on the floor like veteran teammates once did for her.
“I think the leadership on the floor ends up being very important because oftentimes in games we are in situations that the freshmen have never been in at the collegiate level,” Walczak said.
Before joining the Black Bears, Walczak was a 2011 McDonald’s All-American nominee and named Miss Basketball New Hampshire during her senior season at Oyster River High School in Durham, N.H. Walczak received offers to play college basketball at UMaine and Fordham University in New York. When it came time to commit, Walczak chose the Black Bears in order to remain close to her family; but she was also drawn to the UMaine community.
“From my visits [to UMaine], I got the impression that everyone cares for you here and wants you to succeed, and I haven’t been proven wrong up to this point,” Walczak said.
In her rookie campaign, Walczak averaged almost six points and five rebounds per contest over 29 games. As the season progressed, Walczak’s contributions increased and became steadier. The hard work and improvement came full circle that season in the Black Bear’s America East tournament victory over Stony Brook, as Walczak posted 10 points and eight rebounds in the contest.
After ending her freshman year on such a high note, Walczak looked to take things to a new level this year. Replicating her freshman numbers was easy, but Walczak realized she wasn’t putting up the numbers her team needed or the ones she expected.
“I set a goal of reaching for a double-double every game and it wasn’t until recently that I reached that goal in a few games,” Walczak said.
According to Walczak, not being able to rebound or finish around the rim were the issues behind her struggles.
“I went through a stretch where I was letting my team down by not getting nearly as many rebounds as I could, and I was not scoring enough points for the amount of shots I was taking,” Walczak said. “I have really started working on a rebounding mindset, which has inspired me to get more boards. On the other side, I am now valuing each shot I take and taking it to finish because in games especially against good teams I won’t get as many shot opportunities.”
The renewed mindset brought out the best in Walczak over the last few games, as she obtained double-doubles in two of the last three games, including a 28 point, 11 rebound performance against UMBC on Feb. 2. While hard work has definitely been a factor behind her most recent success, Walczak believes timing was key as well.
“Some things had finally started falling into place, and a big part of it is confidence. It has taken me a while to realize within myself what I am capable of as a player,” Walczak said. “I think games like the UMBC game helped me to understand what I can do as a player and how it feels. It’s games like that I have tried to build off of.”
Unfortunately the UMBC game was the last of the season for Walczak. She sustained a foot injury that will require surgery, subsequently ending her season. She finished the season averaging 10 points and five rebounds in 19 games.
Though her season is over and the Black Bears playoff hopes have all but vanished, Walczak will continue to provide the leadership and encouragement that her teammates have relied on all year.
“If you know you’re doing as much as you can as a player to try and help the team succeed then that is a reason to stay optimistic about things,” Walczak said. “Every day in practice we work on fundamentals and things to help us improve, and I think the all the games remaining in the season provide an opportunity to win, but [the remaining games are] also an opportunity to see how much we have learned.”
Walczak’s focus will now shift to rehabilitation and preparation for what lies ahead next year. With another solid, albeit short, campaign under her belt, Walczak is excited for what lies ahead for herself and for her team next season.
“Remembering that we are such a young team, it’s not an excuse for how we’ve played at all. With that, I think that with a summer of hard conditioning and weight training under our belts, paired with a year of getting to play with each other, will hopefully make a huge difference,” she said.