Reporting David Elfin
Davey Johnson was named National League Manager of the Year after leading the Nationals to the best record in the majors in 2012. Mike Shanahan guided the Redskins to their first NFC East title in 13 years. John Thompson III is doing a marvelous job at Georgetown. Ben Olsen directed DC United to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
But when pondering who the local Coach of the Year should be, don’t forget Maryland women’s basketball boss Brenda Frese just because her teams are always excellent.
Frese, who won the national championship in 2006, her fourth year in College Park, might be doing her best work this season. She has the injury-ravaged Terps at 21-4 overall, 12-2 in the formidable ACC, and eighth in the rankings despite losing starting guards Brene Moseley and Laurin Mincy and backup center Essence Townsend to torn ACLs before December. Reserve forward Tierney Pfirman just returned from four weeks on the shelf with a dislocated kneecap, an injury that left Maryland with just six scholarship players, two of them freshmen.
And yet, the Terps, whose only seniors are forward Tianna Hawkins and former volleyball player Caitlin Adams, are second in the nation in rebounding margin. They’ve won eight games by at least 40 points and 17 by at least 20. Their only losses have come at No. 3 Connecticut, No. 5 Duke and No. 16 North Carolina. They avenged the latter with an emphatic 85-59 destruction on Jan. 24 and have the change to avenge the loss to the Blue Devils on Sunday.
“No way,” Frese said laughing when asked if she could have predicted such greatness in the wake of such serious injuries. “This team has definitely exceeded expectations. The biggest thing they’ve shown is resiliency. It seemed like every time a player went down, this team got stronger and tighter. Our staff has never let this team have a pity party. We don’t talk about what we don’t have versus what we do have. I never thought it would come so quickly. It speaks volumes about the players we recruited, the kind of families they come from.”
Actually, it speaks volumes about Frese, who was the national Coach of the Year in 2002 and is 273-90 during her 11 seasons at Maryland, all but two of which will have ended in the NCAA Tournament when this year’s team gets its ticket punched next month. In light of the Terps’ lack of depth, Frese has cut back on practice time and replaced those minutes with longer film sessions while making sure that the players are in superb shape, a necessity for the upcoming ACC Tournament and its three games in three days for teams that make the title game.
“This season has been really fun,” said Hawkins, who wants to become a Secret Service agent after playing in the WNBA. “At first, you ask, ‘Why is this happening my senior year?’ But you’ve got to put that aside and say, ‘This is all we have. We have to work with this.’ The injuries have actually brought us together even more. Our chemistry is special.”
However, even with Pfirman back, Maryland has only nine bodies so Frese has a cast of former male high school players as the scout team, pushing the Terps and playing the roles of the upcoming opponent.
“The coaches are very smart about our legs,” said junior forward Alyssa Thomas, the reigning ACC Player of the Year. “We practice maybe two times a week and we’re still in phenomenal shape.”
Thomas and Hawkins have been phenomenal. Hawkins tops the ACC in scoring, just ahead of Thomas. In rebounding, it’s Thomas 1, Hawkins 2.
“Alyssa and Tianna are incredible,” said freshman point guard Chloe Pavlech, who was supposed to back up Moseley but will start her 23rd game tonight at Boston College. “They draw so much from the [opposing] defense, it creates shots for our other players.”
Hawkins wasn’t that highly rated coming out of Riverdale Baptist High School. But she has improved the most of any player Frese has coached, nearly doubling the 9.6 points per game she averaged during her first three years. She has 12 double-doubles and is on the brink of becoming just the third Terp with 1,000 career rebounds, joining national championship team mainstays Crystal Langhorne and Marissa Coleman.
Thomas, whom Frese called “the most ferocious competitor I’ve ever coached,” has 15 double-doubles and has a decent chance of becoming Maryland’s all-time leading scorer before she finishes her career.
While Hawkins would relish another shot at UConn or a matchup with defending champion Baylor in the NCAAs and Pavlech can’t wait for her first home game against Duke in a surely raucous Comcast Center, Thomas — perhaps mindful of how Maryland was overwhelmed by Notre Dame in last year’s Elite Eight after beating then-defending champion Texas A&M in the Sweet 16 — is focused on the task at hand.
“We know what it takes at tournament time and what we need to bring so that doesn’t happen again,” Thomas said. “But we’re focused on Boston College. After that game, we’ll get to Duke. I think we can play with anyone. It’s all about who has the most heart and who’s gonna play the hardest for 40 minutes.”
That’s what Frese has the outmanned Terps doing game after game and why she deserves serious D.C. Coach of the Year consideration.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin