When the Maine Pioneers have their weekly practice, the gym at Portland’s former Catherine McAuley High School fills with the drum of bouncing basketballs, the squeak of sneakers, and the guffaws of eight women, all of them over 70. For an hour, the players barely stop moving, alternating drills to brush up on layups, pivots, and free throws — simple things that can make or break a game. Passion for the sport keeps the ballers of the state’s oldest women’s basketball team feeling — and playing — like they’re much younger. What’s more, says 76-year-old Pioneer Jo Dill, it keeps them hungry. “Everyone wants to win,” she says.
Part of Maine Senior Women’s Basketball, a league of age-bracketed teams for women over 50, the Pioneers both practice and play during their weekly sessions — their games are against one another, played three-on-three and half-court. The team also travels to compete in tournaments against other senior teams: at least one a year in Maine, sometimes others around New England, and at the biennial National Senior Games. At the last NSG, held in New Mexico in 2019, the Pioneers brought home silver, crushing the Connecticut Nutmegs, the Pasadena Cougars, and others, but losing a shoot-out to Tennessee’s Smoky Mountain Hot Shots.
Reaching the podium, though, isn’t Dill’s favorite memory of her 18 years playing with the Pioneers. At the 2013 National Senior Games, in Cleveland, the team won only one game. “We were screaming and cheering, and someone came up to us and asked, ‘Did you get the gold medal?’” she remembers. “We said, ‘No, we won one game!’”
A core group of Pioneers started playing together some 20 years ago, in the 50-and-up bracket, and the name has followed them up the ladder since it was coined in 1999. Coach Elizabeth “Biz” Houghton has been with the team for the last decade. A commanding 6’2″ center for Cape Elizabeth at the turn of the ’80s, Houghton played for Boston College, then professionally in Ireland, and she was inducted last year into the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame. “The dedication of this team is what I love most about them,” the 59-year-old says. “Their lives are busy, but they are here 99 percent of the time, not only because of their passion for basketball but also their passion for being together, for being there for one another.”
Dill agrees: Pioneers always show up for each other, she says. If someone has an operation or loses a family member, her teammates step in to help. And retiring from the court doesn’t mean leaving the team: three former Pioneers who had to stop playing for health reasons still attend practices, helping Coach Houghton, keeping score during scrimmages, and shouting their support. “Once a Pioneer, always a Pioneer,” Dill says.
Of course, Title IX didn’t exist when the Pioneers were growing up, and many on the team didn’t have the opportunity to play hoops in high school or college. For 72-year-old Darlene Miller, who joined in 2020, this is the first team she’s played on in 53 years. And while it’s hard today to imagine a sports landscape without women’s basketball, Dill still considers her teammates trailblazers. “I definitely think of the Pioneers as pioneers,” she says.