Freeport native Sabrina Best hoped to become a head women’s basketball coach someday, but someday arrived unexpectedly early last month.
On the eve on the season, the Southern Maine Community College women’s program was thrown for a loop when last year’s successful and popular coach, Kendra Reichert, had to step down suddenly as her husband took a job out of state.
After a 15-12 campaign in 2011-12 and with several key players returning, the Seawolves had high hopes, but suddenly found themselves without a coach.
A former Seawolves player and assistant for the past two seasons, Best convinced SMCC men’s coach and athletic director Matt Richards that she was the optimal fit.
“I was told on Oct. 2 (the day after first practice) that (Kendra leaving) was a possibility,” Richards said. “The next day I met with Sabrina. The next day we found out it was going to happen, so we made the decision to promote her to head coach. Sabrina’s commitment level to the program was a selling point for me. She has passion for Seawolves basketball as a former player and a member of the staff. She’s done a nice job embracing the situation. It’s a very mature approach to a difficult situation.”
“It’s gone a lot smoother than a lot of people imagined,” Best said. “It helped that I knew the girls, I knew the style of SMCC and who we play. That part was easy. That’s usually a struggle for a new coach coming in. I went from not having to be at practice until 15 minutes before to worrying about progress reports and if girls were in class. That’s the biggest challenge.”
The Seawolves have responded amazingly well to the sudden change, winning five of their first six games.
SMCC earned a big dose of confidence in the opener, a 70-66 win over the University of New Brunswick in the Can-Am tournament.
“It was huge for the girls to get off to a good start,” said Best. “It was such a big confidence boost. The first game was really close. We were down one late and I had to burn my last timeout. I told them I couldn’t stop play anymore and they had to do it. They surprised me. They stuck to the gameplan and came out of it strong.”
Wins over Dalhousie (71-26) and Unity College (77-25) followed. After a 101-43 setback to Community College of Rhode Island, the Seawolves bounced back to defeat Navy Prep (83-39). Monday afternoon, SMCC opened on a 24-4 run and rolled to a 63-19 triumph at Hampshire College to improve to 5-1.
“We’ve come out stronger than everyone thought,” Best said. “This is the first year our numbers are solid. It’s the first time we have more post players than guards. We have 13 players and seven are post players.”
“The girls are playing hard and that’s the sign of a good coach,” Richards added.
In the early going, SMCC has seen several players step up, led by junior Esther Palmieri, who’s served as a leader on and off the floor. Palmieri scored 10 points against both Dalhousie and Unity and went off for 17 points (and nine assists) against Hampshire College.
“Esther was here with (former coach) Becky (Roak), when we went to Nationals, was here with Kendra and is now here with me,” said Best. “She’s an angel. She’s definitely our go-to player.”
Despite its post dominance, the Seawolves have made a living from downtown.
“Having seven post players, you’d think our strength would be our inside game, but our 3-point shooting has been phenomenal,” said Best. “We’re still trying to figure out who works well together. Our returners and newcomers have hit big 3s. Our guards are amazing. Rogetta Donalson (18 points versus New Brunswick, 22 points in the loss to CCRI) is the type of girl you can put the ball in her hands and something will happen. She can make great drives to the basket, hit big 3s and make crazy passes no one will expect. Emily Bard (25 points against Navy Prep and 13 points versus Dalhousie) is a shooter. I’m hoping she’s more consistent this year. Esther will hit 3s. Tiana Burton (nine points, five assists, three steals versus Unity) took a year off, but she’s back. She’s a true point guard. Esther can handle the role, but I like her as a shooter.”
There are several other players to watch as well.
“Alicia Hoyt (18 points, 13 rebounds in the opener) is out right now with a shoulder injury, but she’s coming back,” said Best. “She eats up the inside game. Maria Veino (15 points against Hampshire College) is a consistent player. You can expect eight points, eight rebounds from her. She gives it her all. Nyalieb Deng (16 points versus Navy Prep and 10 points against Unity) will contribute.”
While the Seawolves have a lot of tests to come and will face an abundance of challengers in the conference, Best and the players have their sights set high.
“I could see this team winning the Yankee Conference,” Best said. “I think our biggest competition will be Central Maine. It’s a great rivalry. They have great returners. We play completely different styles. When we play, it will be very interesting to see who comes out on top. We have the personnel to matchup well.
“We knew from Day One that championship teams are made by the way they overcome adversity. We started with a huge bump in the road and we’ve overcome very well. Our goal is to win the conference and go to Nationals. It’s not an unrealistic goal, especially with the start we’ve had. I’m a very positive person and with our staff being positive, it’s made for an easy transition. We’ll make the best out of it.”