As the calendar flips to March and the specter of madness encroaches on her sport, it can be hard, Brenda Frese knows, to appreciate what you have before it’s lost for good.
Like, say, three straight years of Big Ten Conference tournament championships. Or seven straight years hosting an NCAA tournament game. Or a senior guard’s mother who handwrites thank-you notes to the program’s staff, just because.
“I need to cherish this time,” the Maryland women’s basketball coach was saying last month at Xfinity Center. “Like, how many more times do I get to see her?”
After the recent slide by the No. 17 Terps (23-6) — three losses in four games to end the season, a fourth straight regular-season title denied by Ohio State — it is hard to say. It could be as many as nine more games or as few as two. Among the only certainties: Kristen Confroy will be starting in them, and her mother, Pat, will be in attendance.
On Friday against either No. 7 seed Indiana or No. 10 seed Michigan State, Kristen is expected to make the 90th start of her Maryland career in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal. Inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, cheering on the Big Ten’s leading 3-point shooter (45.6 percent), will be Pat, expected to be on hand for what’s estimated to be her 130th game.
When Kristen signed with Maryland, Frese recalled, there was some question outside the program as to whether she belonged. Now Frese worries over the day Kristen leaves. It’s one thing to replace her 9.8 points per game. It’s another to find a player and a family who have fit so perfectly.
“I think there's different degrees or levels of perfectionism that does you in or that level of perfectionism that drives you to be great,” Frese said. “And I think she has, as a result of her family, a healthy level of perfectionism. She wants to be great.”
Frese realized that drive might be hereditary long before Kristen’s first game in College Park. The coach likes to check in on committed recruits during the season, so during Kristen’s senior year, she planned a trip out to Solon, Ohio. Pat told Frese to come earlier than normal.
When Frese arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Pat picked her up. “I’ve never had a parent do that,” Frese said. They drove back the 30 minutes to Solon, and Pat gave her a grand tour — of their home, of the community. When Kristen got back from school, they had dinner together before heading to Kristen’s game. Then it was back to the airport, again courtesy of Pat.
“It’s just who they are,” Frese said.
Pat and Mark both played three sports in high school, which perhaps made it easier to parent a precocious athlete like Kristen. On the long rides back from forgettable days on the basketball court or the softball diamond or the soccer field, Kristen recalls few stern conversations about what went wrong. The ones she did have, she initiated.
Kristen wanted everything just so, and her parents knew it. “And so if I start talking about what's going wrong, then it'll be like, 'Oh, well, you did this really well or you did that really well,' ” Kristen said. “And the flip side, if I'm just really quiet, they're like: 'So do you want to get some ice cream?’ ”
“She'd beat herself up,” Pat said. “The last thing she needed was somebody telling her something she already knew.”
Leadership did not come naturally to Kristen. Months before she arrived at Maryland, Kristen told Cleveland.com that in high school she had been “forced” to take on the role, “which I don’t really like to do because I don’t like to talk.” Change came slowly. Early in Kristen’s freshman year, Frese called her out for not communicating during practice.
As Kristen found her voice and a spot in the rotation, taking over as a starter by her sophomore year, her parents kept finding a way to College Park. It was Mark’s idea to attend as many games as possible, but he often travels for work. So when a home game was next on the schedule, Pat would often would make the drive east to Virginia, where her mother- and sister-in-law live, before ending up in College Park.
She got to know the Terps’ managers and boosters, baked the team treats for Christmases and Valentine’s Days. She invited players out to dinners and wrote to Frese, thanking her for raising her daughter. She became maybe the most popular fan among Terp Hosts, who handle guest relations at basketball games.
“They all come looking for me, too, because they know Pat's got the treats,” she said, laughing. “It's just become family for me.”
This past year has been one for the scrapbook. In August, Pat and Mark made it out to Taiwan for Maryland’s World University Games. On Feb. 11, Kristen rose to No. 2 in 3-pointers made in program history, trailing only Kristi Toliver. On Monday, she received All-Big Ten honorable mention, something of a capstone achievement for a player her parents once called “Captain Underdog,” for how many people once doubted her.
But Kristen was raised not to care about stats. (Her mother, she said, will jokingly ask her: How many smiles can she get in a game?) More important to Frese and to Pat is the person she has grown into.
On the court, Kristen has become “another head coach on the floor,” Frese said, taking charge of the defense and calling out instructions. Off the court, she has approached her senior year with the right amount of rigor: serious enough to be a national leadership honor society member bound for medical school at Wake Forest, carefree enough to catch a screening of “Fifty Shades Freed” with teammates.
Growing up, Kristen’s parents told her they’d be fine if she never became the star she was in high school. All these years later, Kristen’s glad she did it her way. Her parents are, too.
“There were no strings attached when we brought her here,” Pat said. “People would say to me, ‘Why isn't she shooting? Why isn't she this? Why isn't she that? Why don't you tell her this?’ I said I don't come here to coach her.