UMaine game in Orono rekindles fond memories of The Pit

Fanny Wadling of the University of Maine drives to the basket past Heather Forster (24) of the University at Albany as Albany’s Chyanna Canada (44) looks on during Sunday’s America East women’s basketball semifinal at Memorial Gym in Orono. Peter Buehner | UMaine Athletics

Watching the University of Maine women’s basketball team beat Albany in an America East semifinal at Memorial Gym in Orono on Sunday brought back some great basketball memories for me as a player, coach and official at the gym better known as The Pit.

When I was 12, I recall watching Fort Fairfield’s Keith Mahaney and Bangor’s John Norris lead the Bears against Yankee Conference opponents Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire in the early 1950s.

The great teams of UMaine coach Brian McCall in the early 1960s also turned in some memorable performances at The Pit. Those teams were led by outstanding Maine high school players such as Don and Dick Sturgeon from Old Town, All-American selection Tom “Skip” Chapelle, also from Old Town, and Jon Ingalls from Bangor

As a high school player, I was fortunate to play in The Pit for Bangor in 1953-54 and 1954-55 when we won the Eastern Maine Class L (now AA) Tournament that was held there.

That was followed up by when I played for Husson College and we would compete against the UMaine freshman team at The Pit in the late 1950s.

My next experience at The Pit came when I was coaching at Orono High School as we would scrimmage the UMaine freshman team as a tourney tuneup. Great crowds turned out to see the local high school players take on the UMaine freshmen from different parts of the state.

As an official, I also spent some time on the hardwood at The Pit, during some of the seasons when one of my former Orono High players, Peter Gavett, was the team’s head coach.

I also officiated UMaine freshman and junior varsity games at The Pit, with one game always standing out. I had done the Maine-Bates JV prelim game and then had to stay and ref the varsity men’s game featuring fiery Boston University coach Rick Pitino because the varsity officials missed their flight to the game.

When officiating games at The Pit, I always had to blow my whistle extra hard so it could be heard by the players on the court.

Those games were sellouts. On nights there was a UMaine freshman or JV prelim game at 5:30 p.m., the fans had to get there by 5 p.m. to get a seat for the 7:30 p.m. varsity game.

‘In those days, The Pit could hold about 2,300 fans, compared to the 1,300 now, because there were bleachers on both sides of the court and bleachers in the north balcony. Today, the bleachers consist of just three rows on the side opposite the benches and scorer’s table.

However, even with the fewer seats, the UMaine women’s team enjoyed the loud noise of the fans, their support and the great basketball atmosphere. It seemed to give them the energy to rally past Albany.

The Pit was the home for the UMaine hoop teams for many years until they moved to Alfond Arena on campus, the Bangor Auditorium and now to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

Sunday’s game had to be played in Orono because of a scheduling conflict at the CIC, which was hosting a pro bull riders competition..

The women got to experience what it was like to have a sold-out crowd cheering them on acting as a sixth player. After UMaine’s very slow first-quarter start and a 19-9 deficit, the crowd rallied the Bears to a 34-32 halftime lead and continued to motivate them to a 46-38 third-quarter margin en route to the victory.

UMaine fans got a chance to see what it was like to watch a game at The Pit and support UMaine just like in the old days.

I enjoyed this visit back to the past while taking advantage of the technology of the present and watching the game online.

It was a great day for UMaine women’s basketball and The Pit.