“Just A Girl From Maine”: Mackenzie Holmes is an inspiration to Hoosiers and Mainers alike

  • 11/28/2023 12:55 pm in

If there are any more additions to the array of statues in the South Lobby of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, her name will be at the top of the list for many Indiana fans. The statue, if built, would probably capture her signature position under the basket, with one hand up in the air and one foot off the ground as the ball rolls smoothly into the basket for a layup. You wouldn’t be able to tell based on the statue, but there would’ve been some pretty high-level footwork that occurred just before the bucket.

The statue would be admired by young girls and grown adults alike, a representation of both her skills on the court and her personality off of it that makes her someone that everyone can look up to. By the amount of “54” jerseys that float around Assembly Hall on game days, it’s clear she is already a player everyone loves.

“She”, of course, is Mackenzie Holmes. Her name is forever etched in the Indiana history books as the program’s first-ever All-American and Big Ten defensive player of the year and, by the time the 2023-24 season ends, quite possibly the program’s all-time leading scorer. Holmes is one of only two Hoosiers to ever score 2,000 career points, and she only has 360 more points to go before taking the title from Tyra Buss.

Everyone associates Mackenzie Holmes with Indiana — how could they not? The forward, now in her fifth year with the Hoosiers, grew into one of the best post players in the country at the same time that Indiana emerged as one of the top programs in the country. That’s not a coincidence. Holmes has fully embraced the Hoosier mentality; she’s humble, works as hard as she can every single day and will do whatever it takes to win.

“I really like the phrase ‘servant leader’ just because she leads by example, she does everything the right way,” Cam Holmes, Mackenzie’s older brother, said when asked to describe her. “She does all of the things that she wishes were done for her or that were done for her on her way up. All the people that care about her, she makes sure to keep tabs on them. She doesn’t leave anyone behind or spite anybody just because they did one thing to her back in the day or way back in high school.”

There’s no question that playing at Indiana helped strengthen those qualities. But that’s also just who Mackenzie Holmes is, and who she’s always been. And it all starts with where she grew up.


Gorham, Maine, is somewhere you wouldn’t know existed unless you had a connection to it. Barely 30 minutes west of Portland and just over an hour south from Augusta, Gorham is known for its quaint, small-town feel, like just about every other small town in Maine. It has a street called Main Street and one high school with a student body of about 800.

Gorham High School is a big, red brick building and the gym is nothing special, with the typical pullout plastic bleachers and cement walls. But ask a couple questions about what happens in that gym, and you’ll quickly find Gorham is not quite like every other little small town in Maine.

“We had a really good pool of girls basketball players,” Holmes said. “My freshman year we had I believe three out of five of our starters had Division I offers, so that was pretty uncommon for Maine. So we were really good my first couple years of high school, and had a lot of popularity surrounding our team.”

That popularity was for good reason. During Holmes’ first two years of high school basketball, the Gorham Rams went on a 42-game winning streak and didn’t lose, winning the state championship in 2016 and 2017. There was a strong culture within the program, and that culture was all about winning.

So when the team lost a significant amount of talent heading into Holmes’ junior year, she had to learn how to lose and how to lead.

“We lost more games than I ever had before,” she said. “At that point I learned kind of a whole different aspect of the game, learning how to be more of a leader and taking on that different role.”

The Rams went 14-8 that season and made it all the way to the state championship before losing by one point. Holmes played every game and averaged 21.1 points and 13.3 rebounds.

While that sort of leadership and those kinds of numbers are common for Holmes now, they weren’t always the norm. It wasn’t really until eighth grade when she really started coming into her own.


At this point, it’s a well-known story. Ask anyone who knows Holmes about her first day at AAU practice in eighth grade and you’ll get the same answer: she wasn’t at the physical level she needed to be at and she couldn’t keep up. The Maine Firecrackers were known for their high expectations and Holmes couldn’t meet them. She had lots of natural talent, and she was bigger than most girls, but it wasn’t enough.

Firecrackers coach Don Briggs recalls she didn’t even make it through the entire first practice. But she came back, and that was that.

“She showed up half an hour early for practice the next day,” he said. “She wanted another chance, and it didn’t go great again, but she stuck it out. She went through the entire practice, and then each practice it became a little easier. And along the way, she’s earning the respect and trust of her teammates.”

Briggs chuckled as he remembered they usually had to have a garbage can on hand, just in case.

“A lot of kids would have walked away,” he said. “But she also had that inner drive and greater aspirations that kept her focused and to fight through that adversity.”

Holmes started getting up before the sun rose to get in extra conditioning and weightlifting. Whenever she had a free moment, it was used to better herself.

“It kind of sparked something in me to develop this work ethic and habit that I’ve had from that point on,” Holmes said. “I think it kind of made me realize this is what I wanted to do so I need to really dig my heels in and start taking it more seriously.”

Basketball had always been a part of Holmes’ life; both of her parents, Lenny and Denise, were coaches and her brother Cam also played basketball. But she maintains that her love for basketball, and her motivation to play at the next level, emerged completely on its own.

“My parents didn’t put any pressure on me to play, and I think they just let me develop my own love and passion for the game and I think that’s what made it the most special,” Holmes said. “Most people you hear having coaches as parents, they must have been pressured or felt like they had to love basketball, be good at basketball, but my parents really let me create my own path which I think was really important for my career.”

Holmes credits the Firecrackers as the program that got her the experience and exposure necessary to play at the Division I level. They worked on improving Holmes’ defense and footwork and helped her develop her signature style of play involving her sprinting up and down the court.

“Over time, that became her trademark of a post player that was willing to run the floor every single time,” Briggs said. “I remember talking to the Indiana coaches, they were just like ‘How do you get her to do that? We’ve had kids in college we can’t get to do that.’”

Some of Holmes’ tenacity and motivation also came from her relationship with her brother. A two-year age difference meant the two grew up constantly competing, and while they’re very close now, they didn’t always get along so well.

“We fought a lot,” Cam said. “I would say we weren’t always on the best of terms.”

And yet, he was okay with Mackenzie tagging along to his practices and workouts.

“He’s very kind for letting me do that,” she said with a laugh.

Playing with — and against — her older brother meant Holmes had to play physically and not back down. It was a sign of what was to come; the Holmes siblings would eventually end up together at Indiana, with Cam working as a practice player who would always match up with Mackenzie.

Mackenzie and the Firecrackers also played full games against male competitors in high school, thanks to some good old-fashioned deception from Briggs and his staff. In the fall of Holmes’ junior year, they registered to play in the high school boys’ division, but wouldn’t put their own name on the schedule since there was a chance the boys’ teams simply wouldn’t show up. So when those teams did show up, they were met with a team full of girls who were completely able to play with a boys’ ball and competed until the very end. They never won a game, but that wasn’t the goal.

“I would tell Mackenzie, ‘The first time the person you’re guarding runs across the middle, I want you to take your forearm and just drive it right into his chest. Let them know you’re going to be here,’” Briggs said. “And it was awesome. It made a difference as we went through the high school season.”

The constant high-level competition allowed Holmes to improve her game and her confidence at the same time, and provided the foundation for who she is today.

“She was a shell of the person that she is today,” Briggs said. “Once she got comfortable with who she is, her whole personality flourished. And I think what you’re seeing, what I see, at Indiana is like a version of her best self.”


By the time colleges came calling, Holmes had already made a name for herself in the state of Maine. Crowds were filling the high school gym for the girls’ basketball games and everyone was confident she would play at the next level. The question was, where?

Originally, Holmes never considered going anywhere outside of New England. She wanted to be close to home, and she wanted her family and friends to be able to see her play. Then Indiana associate head coach Rhet Wierzba called.

“They contacted my dad and then they reached out to me and they offered me over the phone,” Holmes said. “I knew that it was a place that I wanted to visit after the first couple phone calls.”

“She became a priority for us,” Wierzba said. “We knew we needed that position… she was the one we really wanted.”

Obviously, Holmes’ talent on the court made her stand out. Her footwork, the angles she found to score and her touch on the ball were all things Wierzba noticed right away. But as he kept watching, he got more insight into just how competitive and driven Holmes was.

“Even if she wasn’t supposed to be the best player on the court, she would find a way to be the best player on the court,” he said.

Holmes’ first visit to Indiana was a bit of a hectic one. The trip from Indianapolis to Bloomington was delayed by road construction, pushing the itinerary back almost two hours. But Holmes was still able to do a photoshoot the first night she was there, and the next night was Hoosier Hysteria. Romeo Langford was on his official visit at the same time, so Holmes got to witness everything that Indiana basketball was all about.

“What stood out to me was how welcoming everybody was, there was constantly someone coming over to introduce themselves. It felt like a very welcoming environment and just a place I could see myself at,” Holmes said. “If I were to go a thousand miles away from home, I knew my family would feel comfortable sending me here.”


Holmes may have ended up far from home, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an impact on the town of Gorham each and every day. She runs camps when she comes back, she goes back to Gorham High School to watch her former team and little kids all over Gorham have “54” shirt jerseys in their closets. Holmes has been featured in magazines and stories all across the state, and has become a de facto “face” of Maine basketball.

And while she’s happy to be an inspiration, that level of fame has never been anywhere close to the top of Holmes’ priority list.

“It’s something she’s not the biggest fan of just because that doesn’t matter to her, the fame doesn’t matter to her,” Cam said. “Even when we go home for Christmas or summer, when we go get takeout from places she’s always asking me if I can be the one to go in so it doesn’t take her an hour to get out of there because she’s stopped by a million people.”

The one time Holmes might be more willing to be stopped by fans, though, is when the Hoosiers travel to Portland to play the University of Maine on Nov. 30. The two teams will play on what is technically a neutral court at Cross Insurance Arena, and even though it’s only two hours from UMaine’s campus, the overwhelming majority of the fans will likely be wearing cream and crimson.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was beside myself,” Holmes said when she found out Indiana would be playing just 30 minutes from her hometown. “That’s the gym that I played all my high school tournament games. It means everything.”

The game means everything to the Indiana fanbase in Gorham, as well. For many, it’s the first (and perhaps only) chance to see the athletes they’ve followed so closely on television. Sure, Mackenzie Holmes is the headliner, but Mainers have also grown attached to players like Chloe Moore-McNeil, Sydney Parrish and Sara Scalia. For others, it’s a time to recognize all of Holmes’ accomplishments, and all that she still has yet to achieve.

“It’s more than just the game, I think it’s a celebration. I get emotional,” Briggs said, his voice wavering as he talked about his former player. “What a great culmination of four years of high school at a very high level and then going away at a very high level, and being part of a team that was good but has been transformed into a perennial top 10, top of the Big Ten, year in and year out.”

Holmes is by no means the first uber-talented women’s basketball player to come out of Maine. Many of her AAU and high school teammates went on to play at Division I schools. But most of those schools were within New England. In a way, Holmes leaving Maine put the state on everyone’s radar.

“We didn’t have a brand, we didn’t have anything outside of Maine. We had to fight for relevance,” Briggs said. “So we were able to kind of change that and it opened up the landscape for a lot of kids to be able to seen and have more options, quite frankly.”

Holmes’ mother, Denise, has been one of the biggest promoters of her daughter on social media. In response to posts about Holmes’ accomplishments, she often comments the words “Just A Girl From Maine” with some celebratory emojis and hearts.

Why? Mackenzie isn’t completely sure. It’s her mom’s own little thing, she said, and not something Mackenzie thinks much about. But at the same time, she recognizes the larger meaning behind it.

“I do want to show that like it doesn’t necessarily matter where you’re from or the background you come from, that things can still happen for you and you can still accomplish anything you set your mind to,” Holmes said. “I think that people think Maine’s not a hotspot for basketball, and it’s not… we’re not pumping out Division I talent year in and year out, but it is possible if you get the right exposure and meet the right people, you can accomplish anything.”

So, the next time someone asks what Maine is good for, the answer shouldn’t just be lobster and blueberries. It should also be basketball and Mackenzie Holmes.

(Photo credit: IU Athletics)

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