It didn’t take long for Brenda Frese to come face-to-face with her biggest challenge for the upcoming season.
Used to an experienced team the past three years, Frese stepped onto the court for the Maryland women’s basketball team’s first practice of the year planning to get a good offensive workout in. But as the eighth-year coach began giving instructions, all she received in return was a bunch of blank stares.
“I was planning on putting in two basic plays,” Frese recalled. “But when I got through the first one, I realized there was no way I could go to the second one. It really kind of jolted me. We’ve had the luxury of having our veteran leaders over the years.”
Graduated are Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman, the final leftovers from the 2006 national championship roster, who were so well-versed in Frese’s attack by their senior season that they could run a practice on their own.
But those two stars aren’t all that are missing. Gone too are Marah Strickland and Drey Mingo, who both transferred, and Dee Liles, who had to leave the program in October for academic reasons.
In College Park now is a team with nine underclassmen and a transfer, only one of whom - sophomore Lynetta Kizer - has had significant playing time at Maryland.
So the task at hand for Frese and her staff is twofold: developing the players at hand while maintaining the level of success achieved in recent years.
“I’m extremely proud of the bar that we set and the expectations that come with that year in and year out for our program,” Frese said. “As we’re putting in a lot of new things with this young team, we’re finding that it doesn’t come quite as easily as it once did. The perspective to understand is that it is a process.”
But Frese has no intentions to let the program slip now, not after she has built it into one of the elite programs in the country. And having groomed a young team once before with great success, she isn’t about to change the formula.
The Terps still will run, looking for easy baskets on the fast break and early in the shot clock. And there’s plenty of talent inside Comcast Center to do so thanks to Frese’s seemingly endless string of top-10 recruiting classes.
“They’re all going to be thrown into the fire early and often,” Frese said. “But I think that’s the [best] way to be able to learn. I’ve never been afraid to play newcomers and freshmen, and that’s going to be where the core of our team is at.”
It worked with Kizer last year, when she earned ACC rookie of the year honors. And on this team, that is good enough to secure sage status. She may not have expected it so early in her career, but this year Kizer has been a source of advice to highly touted freshmen Essence Townsend and Tianna Hawkins.
But Kizer’s biggest contributions to the Terps will remain on the court, where she will be leaned on early and often. After a grueling 35-game season wore her down at times last year, the 6-foot-4 center spent the summer preparing for another grind.
“I know where the bumps and bruises are going to come. I know how to better take care of my body this year than I did last year,” Kizer said. “It’s just a complete turnaround; it’s going to be easier to get through the season.”
Frese has been able to use redshirt senior Lori Bjork as a teaching tool. While sitting out all of last season after transferring from Illinois, Bjork was a valuable practice player. Now she’s in the starting lineup for her 3-point shot and has emerged as a much-needed vocal leader.
“That’s one of the exciting things about this year. We do have a real focus on developing players because we’ve got so many young kids,” said Bjork, who added she has an interest in coaching in the future. “They’ve got a lot of enthusiasm for what they’re doing. They may not know exactly what to expect, but they’re willing to work hard.”
And ultimately, that is why the young Terps are scoffing at the notion of inexperience being an obstacle.
“Everybody knows what we can do here at Maryland, what we’re going to do here, how we are preparing to be that national contending team that we want to be,” Kizer said. “We’re not really worried about too much on the outside, just preparing to get back to that Elite Eight and defend the ACC championship.”