ORONO, Maine — Anna Heise easily could have returned from her summer sojourn in Germany 20 pounds heavier.
She had three months off and no commitments. She had her potato-loving mother, Andrea, to cook for her.
But she had other ideas.
Heise, a junior center for Maine, was greeted by incredulous double-takes when she got back to Orono.
She was 20 pounds lighter, her 6-foot-3 body toned by a combination of strenuous workouts and a no-carbohydrate diet that her mother even joined in on.
She quickly showed her teammates that she was not the same timid player who averaged 4.1 points and 3 rebounds as a sophomore.
“I wasn’t used to her going for the fast break,” said Mikaela Gustafsson, a fellow junior post player. “I realized I had to keep up with her. I couldn’t just relax. Once they got a rebound I had to keep in mind where she was so she wouldn’t get ahead of me. So that was a change that I wasn’t used to.”
Heise is averaging 6.5 points this year, but more importantly hitting 52 percent of her field goals, up from 41.9 percent. She is more aggressive in the post and a better defender. She has earned a starting spot for a team that enters Sunday’s game at William & Mary with a 7-4 record.
The transformation began last spring before Heise left Orono. Coach Richard Barron told her she needed to come back in better shape, and Heise recognized the truth in that statement. She was determined to make it happen.
“I knew that I wanted to have a better season than last year,” Heise said. “I was looking at film and when I saw myself, I was like, ‘Dang, I have to change.’ “
Faced with three open months, Heise said the key was to get into the gym immediately, rather than rationalizing that she could laze around for one of those months and then turn it on for two. She would rise at 6 a.m. to lift weights, return to her home in Halle — two hours east of Berlin — for breakfast, then head back to the gym for skill work with her former coach. Then there was the running — on a treadmill for 30 minutes, up and down stairs in the gym, in the sand used by the track athletes.
“It was awful. I hated it,” Heise said. “But it was good, I guess.”
In the evenings, she would practice against the post players on the men’s team. She expected a little chivalry; she got sharp elbows and shoulders instead. No one called fouls.
“They just didn’t give in. I was hurting [after] some practices,” Heise said. “They helped me a lot, just getting tougher. If someone pushed me, I still had to finish around the basket.”
Back home, mother and daughter started cooking meals together. Salads replaced potatoes. Heise could see and feel the results of all the hard work and healthier eating.
— Anna Heise
Meanwhile, in Orono, the team’s strength and conditioning coach, Matt King, could only send along instructions via email and trust that Heise was following his plan.
He soon found out.
“Yeah, I recognized her, but she was a changed woman,” King said of the moment he saw her again. “She came back as a Division I athlete.”
King recalls the Heise who showed up two years ago. She had no mobility in her ankles, and injuries limited her to 12 games in her freshman season. With her long limbs and compact torso, Heise couldn’t even complete a simple squat exercise at first. Her hips wouldn’t bend that way.
Slowly, mentor and pupil worked on those areas. Heise has added five inches to her vertical jump. She moves easier from side to side, able to plant her foot and cut instead of having to round off those movements. And she can run the court like never before.
Heise ran a mile in 6 minutes, 18 seconds when fall workouts began. She estimated that last year it would have taken her 75 seconds longer.
“Last season was not the way I imagined it would be,” she said. “I just felt like I was the person who had to change it. Conditioning, that’s all on you. If you’re in good shape, there’s other things you can focus on to improve.”
Heise took 100 hook shots each day this summer, a tedious process called the “Mikan Drill” after basketball’s first great big man, George Mikan.
She worked on her footwork and physicality near the basket.
“I didn’t do that last year,” she said. “I wouldn’t post up because I didn’t like contact at all. I would always go out to the 3-point line. Now I want to be more efficient in the post. I have more confidence to finish those plays.”
Heise recently helped hold Harvard’s Temi Fagbenle to three points in a 65-46 Maine win. The 6-foot-4 Fagbenle was averaging 14 points. It was evidence of Heise’s increased strength and growing importance to the Black Bears.