One of the most inspirational, yet untold, inside stories in NCAA college sports is the amazing journey of the University of Maryland's women's basketball team. A great record at midseason isn't surprising for a nationally ranked team; it's expected. Before the season, hopes were high and expectations were tremendous as the Lady Terrapins were picked #4 by ESPN and #5 in the AP preseason polls.
Four of five starters were returning from their 2012 Elite Eight NCAA championship berth. Success was on the horizon and all eyes were on the top prize as they prepared to ascend the NCAA ladder. But that was before injuries ripped through the team like an epidemic.
Were you a stranger to Lady Terrapin basketball, and if you watched the team play at Clemson on Sunday, you'd have never known these were not entirely "all-stars," "all-starters" and "all-that," out there in the Terp uniforms. How did they do it? One answer stands out above all others: Brenda Frese is a winning coach, who knows how to motivate, teach, instruct, guide her players and she's willing to spend hours she doesn't have, going that extra mile to bring out the best in her young pupils, who work valiantly and intently to be the champions that Frese reminds them that they are.
There's no way the Lady Terrapins should be this good right now, but a mixture of brilliant coaching on the part of Brenda Frese, and her brave, defiant refusal to offer excuses, has resulted in the most exciting play that Maryland fans have seen in many years. Week after week, new players stood in for seasoned veterans, walk-ons filled in and volunteers stepped up to create a new team that today stands at 8-1 in the ACC and 17-3 overall.
In the still, quiet moments of excitement and anticipation that fill a locker room before the start of any basketball season, University of Maryland Head Coach Brenda Frese had a plan-a plan to motivate her 2012-2013 team to do their best and to remember one thing: "they are family." To illustrate her point, she'd gathered two bunches of brand new yellow #2 pencils in her hands. She gave the first bundle to her first player on the bench and had her pass them around, each player taking one until everyone had her own.
Frese instructed, "Break your pencils!" Dutifully, each one of the players broke their pencils in half and looked at their coach to hear what was next. She asked, "Wasn't that easy?" They nodded in agreement. Then she took the second bundle of pencils and instructed the first player to grasp that bundle and attempt to break it. One by one, the players passed around that bundle to each in the circle, and none of the players could manage strength enough to crater the bunched pencils. Frese said, "Ladies, that bundle of pencils is our team, our family. Individually, we can bend and break without much effort, but together, we are unbreakable, we are a family." Those words were all it took to remind the Lady Terrapins that, above all, family comes first.
Winning was an integral part of their team's DNA, the 2006 National Championship not that distant in memory. Frese's coaching staff is a cohesive, enthusiastic unit, who can inspire and bring out the best in each player, as needed. Their collective mind-set was on success; they'd done all the work to begin an unforgettable year.
It was unforgettable all right, as All-American Alyssa Thomas had her tonsils removed in September, which cost her two months of training and practice early in the season. Sophomore Brene Moseley tore her ACL in a preseason scrimmage, having just come off a year where she'd been named to the ACC All-Freshman team in 2012. Mosley was to be the starting point guard for this year's team until the injury sidelined her. Then, in an all-ACL blowout season, senior Essence Townsend also blew her ACL, in an exhibition game, no less.
Hang on. It gets worse.
Junior Laurin Mincy, another preseason All-ACC selection, the planned starter at the two-guard position, had been ripping up the court as the Terps played Nebraska. She'd already racked up 16 points when she went down with a torn ACL during the game. Ironically, Mincy had been covering Brene Moseley's position after she'd gone down. With both guards down, freshman Chloe Pavlech was forced to step up to point guard, and freshman Tierney Pfirman moved into the lineup as the two-guard.
There hadn't been much ballyhoo around Pavlech from her high school days, but Brenda Frese and her coaching staff are known for looking beyond the stats and into the eyes and hearts of their recruits for that unmistakable "X-factor" that they key into, as they search for talent among the masses. If that wasn't enough, sure-shot Alyssa Thomas dislocated her finger during a road win at Towson. Her response to injury? Have it popped back in on the sideline, and get back in the game, and Thomas went on to play with taped fingers for the next few weeks.
If you're wondering why 3-point super shooter Katie Rutan wears a plastic protective mask these days, it's because she took an elbow to her face in the Terps road loss against North Carolina, and received a broken nose for her efforts. If that wasn't enough, she got called for a foul on the play. But Rutan's spirit held her up and got her back into action as fast as they could put her in.
Tierney Pfirman had been flourishing at the two-guard position. She'd already garnered an ACC Freshman of the Week honor, collecting 16 points and 8 rebounds in the Terps 82-62 win over North Carolina State. But then, Pfirman collided with a scout player during practice on Jan. 19 and dislocated her knee cap. It was as painful to see as it was to be Tierney as she was in tremendous pain. And yet, Brenda and the entire team held her and comforted her until the ambulance arrived, because they were family.
At the midseason point in ACC play, the roster is thin, but hearts are full and spirits are strong as the Lady Terrapins suit up 6 recruited scholarship players, a former walk-on (now on scholarship) and a senior Terrapin volleyball player, who heard about all the injuries on the team and responded to a call from one of Frese's staff to see if she'd be interested in helping out. She was.
Assistant women's basketball coach Tina Langley said recently, "I've never seen any one person who can multitask as well as Brenda can. She has a real feel for her players and knows how to reach each of them where they bring their best." The one-on-one coaching time that Frese has spent, a luxury for a typical head coach, who would ordinarily rely on her assistants to fill that primary role, is most special.
Langley said, "Brenda will sit and watch film with players, showing them where they can improve, telling them what to expect from opponents in upcoming games, and just talking to them throughout the day and week, when she thinks of something they might need or want to hear. "Coach Frese e-mails, talks, and texts her players whenever she can, just to let them know how outstanding they are, something that is exceptional for a head coach who is spending equal time strategizing for games and is on the road recruiting-all at the same time," said Langley.
In some cases, Frese is building confidence among young talents who are playing a new position in place of a more seasoned, but injured, starter. The team itself is a strengthened family, part of Frese's extended family, and they know it and feel it, as evidenced by the unselfish play that is shown on the court. The point guard position is an extension of the head coach's brain, and watching the great rapport between Frese and freshman Chloe Pavlech is fun to watch. It just keeps getting better with each game.
On Sunday night, a new milestone was achieved in Head Coach Brenda Frese's record books as the #10 ranked Lady Terrapins beat the Clemson Tigers, on the road, 80-40. At the end of the game Frese was truly shocked as Christy Winters-Scott, of the ACC network, shared with Frese that she'd just captured her 100th ACC conference victory. Frese's first words were, "I had no idea. You're the first person to tell me this."
Frese immediately followed with, "the credit should be shared with our entire team, our tremendous coaching staff, and these outstanding players." Ever as quickly as she was honored, Brenda Frese made a fast break in transition to share that honor with her family. And then she followed up by pointing out the sterling talents of her players, who'd stepped up in the face of substantive obstacles, to bring their season's standing to 8-1 in the ACC, second place in the conference, and 17-3 overall.
There's substantive value in statistics and keeping track of individual achievements and efforts, and comparing them to set goals. That's all well and good for most basketball teams and, often, a fair measure of accomplishment that provides substance for predicting outcome of what the team can be expected to do, on any given game day.
"Maryland fans," shares Langley, "are such loyal strengths to our team; they show great numbers at home and they drive to support us on the road." Interestingly, the primary fan base comes from alumni and townspeople, rather than students, at this point in the season. There's still time for the students to discover one of the best kept secrets on the College Park campus. Fortunately, the Terps have been able to maintain their strong fan base through the years.
The University of Maryland has some very accomplished and high-achievers among alumni who love their school, including broadcasters Gayle King, Connie Chung, and Bonnie Bernstein, ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian, Kevin Plank, CEO of the innovative Baltimore-based sports apparel manufacturer, Under Armour, and Google founder, Sergey Brin, just to name a few. You never know who you'll see on the sidelines supporting their Lady Terps.
Halfway through the season, if you simply studied the numbers and looked at the odds for success among the injuries, setbacks, and possibility of failures, you'd have never picked Maryland to win even 50% of their games, much less shoot over 50% each game. If you'd said as much to Head Coach Brenda Frese, there's a better than even chance that she would have simply looked you in the eyes, handed you a bundle of #2 pencils, and asked you to try to break them. And she would have smiled, as you got her message, loud and clear. The Lady Terrapins host Boston College at home, Sun., Feb. 3 at 1 pm EST. Don't miss it-as Brenda Frese's team will continue to bring that Maryland magic to women's basketball, championship style all the way.