Summer is for vacation. But there's not much downtime for Division I college basketball players. They are never far from the weight room or the basketball court. They can't afford too much vacation from the game. This story is the third in an occasional series looking at the summer exploits of Division I teams in the state.
Three times a week this summer, Maria Conlon has been working out at her old grammar school in Derby and high school in Seymour. The schools are only about 90 minutes from Storrs, but to Conlon, who will be a junior guard at UConn, they seem like different worlds.
The basketball court at the grammar school is so small, Conlon has to shoot three-pointers from out of bounds. The kids at the high school are so young, she has never played with them.
``I go over there and I feel like the old lady,'' said Conlon, 19. ``It reminds me of when I was little, and how much things have changed.''
So much change in such a short time. Eighteen months ago, she was a freshman at the end of the UConn bench. Now, she is a defending national champion, one of three juniors on a team with no seniors and four talented but unproven freshmen.
So three times a week, Conlon has been running and lifting in the buildings she grew up in, preparing for a new phase of her life -- as a team leader.
``With all these young guys coming in, we've got to show them that we want to work hard, and make them want to work hard,'' Conlon said. ``Kind of like when we came in, and Sue [Bird] and all of them. We're working their butts off. I think this year I definitely have to step up to the challenge.''
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Conlon lifts at Seymour with former teammate Brigitte Metzger and her high school coach, Eric DeMarco.
``I do a lot of bench pressing, a lot of toning stuff, a lot of strength stuff right now,'' Conlon said. ``You mix it up. One day it will be a bunch of leg [exercises]. One day it'll it be arms. Along with lifting, I was told to do some cardiovascular work, so I either get on the treadmill or the bike and ride a couple of miles.''
Then, over at St. Mary's-St. Michael's School in Derby, she works out with former Seymour All-State softball player Audra Rockefeller, taking 600 to 700 shots on the tiny basketball court.
``It's like three-fourths of the size of a real court,'' Conlon said. ``So there's no real three-point line. You have to make one. You actually have to shoot from out of bounds.
``But my sprint times are a little better.''
For Conlon, this summer has been a re-dedication to strength and conditioning, an area she has been lacking at UConn.
``I know that last year and the year before, a lot of times I'd look at training and lifting as a chore,'' Conlon said. ``This summer, I'm looking at it as a fun thing. I have a treadmill in my basement, so when I run, I can pop in a DVD and watch that while I'm running. Or put the headphones on when I'm shooting around. I'll try to picture different teams that we play in my head. Sometimes my dad will feed me the ball and pretend like he's Tennessee, or something silly like that.''
Along with changing her body, Conlon, who averaged 4.1 points and 17.7 minutes last season, has spent the summer redefining her game. She played in a summer league in New Haven, along with Fairfield natives Courtney Upshaw of Penn State and Villanova's Kelly Nash. Although a three-point specialist at UConn, Conlon said she averaged one three-point attempt a game this summer.
``I've been working a lot on getting to the basket, pull-up jumpers off the dribble,'' she said. ``Trying to work on other aspects of my game, besides my three-point shot. I'm working on passing, finding the open man, doing stuff I figure I'm going to have to do a little more of next year, as opposed to just shooting.''
Conlon, Diana Taurasi and Morgan Valley will be the team veterans this season.
``I think we have to evolve as leaders,'' Conlon said. ``When you think about it, Diana's really the only one who's really experienced on the court, as far as playing in big games. I'm looking at stepping up, as far as things we're doing off the court. We have to be leaders in everything we do.''
Conlon can relate to the incoming freshmen. She spent her first two seasons playing behind All-Americans Shea Ralph and Svetlana Abrosimova, along with the greatest freshman class in UConn history. The latter group produced a national championship last season -- its second -- and Conlon is eager to continue the tradition.
``I think I've definitely changed. It's made me hungrier,'' she said. ``I know how good it felt to win that one. I want another one. I think all of us who came here came for that reason. One's just not good enough. That's the way I'm looking at it. Sue and them were fortunate to win two, and they showed us what it takes to win a national championship. I don't know if all of us really knew. They led us down the road, and it's time for us to walk down that same path.''Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun