Expectant in victory

The Baltimore Sun

Some of the girls huddled in this dark corner have biceps like billiard balls and tattoos up their spines, and none of them are used to sitting still.

"Where is Coach B?" a 6-foot-tall someone hisses. There are heavy footsteps in the hall, and before long a blimp-sized belly rounds the bend.

"Surprise!" The Terps explode out of their hiding place and into the Comcast Center reception room filled with presents, boxes of Pampers and a cake iced with a stork.

For a moment, Coach Brenda Frese looks startled enough to go into labor right there. Then she's grinning so widely that you hardly notice the dark circles under her eyes - a byproduct of trying to deliver twins and a national championship, all in the same basketball season.

"OK, OK, you guys got me," she says to the baby shower crowd: cheering players, trainers and assistants, and a small army of team managers, one of whom has brought along her father, an obstetrician, just in case. "How did nobody slip up on this?"

She sinks into a black upholstered office chair, which has been wheeled in for the occasion.

Emblazoned with a Maryland M and equipped with a round pillow to support the base of her back, the chair has been her roost for several months, since a bulging disc and pregnancy weight - 50-plus pounds by January - began to make pacing the court a painful chore, rather than the rush it had always been.

She'll work from it as long as possible until the babies are born, likely in late February or early March - the height of tournament madness, when the team hopes to be on track to duplicate its 2006 national title.

During practice, the 37-year-old coach rolls along the sidelines; at games, her chair is in the heart of the huddle.

For now, it's festooned with pastel balloons, the center of the action as Frese opens gift after gift: plush toys, her players' favorite children's books and a baby hoops set with a basketball no bigger than a kumquat.

But in two days, on Jan. 14, she will be sitting courtside again - no longer behaving as a first-time mother-to-be, but rather as a sixth-season Maryland head coach aiming to take down Duke.

Game day battle

"Just not tonight, Brenda! Not tonight!"

Frese smiles politely at the shouting Maryland fan in the bleachers, who, like everyone else in the hour or so before the Duke game, is offering his opinion on the twins' ideal delivery date. Others want to weigh in on their gender, though Frese long ago decided that this will remain a secret, even to her, until the day they are born.

The 17,950-capacity Comcast Center is filling up fast. It could be a sellout crowd; the team is 19-1 at this point, and Frese's in-season pregnancy, almost unheard-of in elite college coaching circles, has drawn plenty of attention. As she waits for pre-game interviews, gallant security guards assess her full moon of a stomach and offer up their seats.

"When's your due date?" a campus policewoman asks as Frese is fitted with a microphone.

March 11, she replies.

"You'll never get that far with twins!" the woman chortles. "Trust me, it'll be a relief."

Frese sure hopes so. As much as she wants to carry her babies to term, she would also like her body back.

Double pregnancy is difficult for anyone, but particularly for a person used to working out six days a week, a former standout college athlete whose job is to transform young women into formidable competitors.

Already, Frese says she can't believe how big she is. When her players impersonate her now, they stuff not one but two basketballs under their jerseys. She has gone up several clothing sizes, even in the sweats and warm-ups that she mostly wears to work. She no longer fits into restaurant booths.

At night, sleep comes only in snatches. She's hungry, thirsty, has to use the bathroom. She says she thinks about what's happening inside her, wonders if it's true that the internal flickering she feels is really a baby hiccup.

The night before the game against Duke, one of their toughest ACC opponents, she barely napped.

Duke's having a rebuilding year, but the Terps haven't beaten the Blue Devils at home since 1998.

Perhaps the babies sensed her anxiety: At 4 a.m., they were flipping around like a couple of Terrapins cheerleaders. Eventually she stopped trying to sleep, placed her husband's hand on her belly and contemplated the wonder of their undertaking.

But exhaustion is hitting hard now.

Her interviews done, Frese waddles back to the Terps locker room where some of the finest athletes in the country are sipping Gatorade, waiting for her: Crystal Langhorne, the unstoppable post player. Kristi Toliver, the genius guard. Laura Harper, Marissa Coleman, Marah Strickland - Frese has assembled a roster of wonder women, many of them veterans of the 2006 championship, and a few likely destined for the WNBA.

Off the court they are typical college women who covet designer denim and fret about the state of their eyebrows before important games.

But playing basketball, they are simply "bigs" and "smalls," according to their height and position. They smash down opponents' shots and pull rebounds out of the air. Some of them can bench-press close to 200 pounds.

When they suffer, it is often due to the violence of the sport they love. Shattered kneecaps, shinsplints, torn ACLs - as a guard at the University of Arizona, Frese hurt her feet so badly that she could hardly walk for months.

Such devastating injuries are a different experience entirely from pregnancy's passive incapacitation, at once crippling and empowering.

Frese's players have plenty of questions about what's happening to her body - why is her huge belly hard, instead of soft? - and Frese includes them as much as she can, even inviting freshman forward Drey Mingo, an aspiring pediatrician, to tag along to a sonogram.

Yet they still seem a little preoccupied with the subject. Earlier on Duke game day, the whole team gathered around the big-screen TV in the lounge, ostensibly to analyze tape and pinpoint the chinks in Duke's armor. But when Frese walked in, she found them giggling over a scene from Knocked Up, the pregnant heroine's belly button protruding like the valve on a pool float.

Now the locker room air is hot and crackly, like weather before a thunderstorm. All eyes are on Frese as she talks up the offensive strategy: When you get catches in the paint, rip it through. Be strong with the basketball.

She takes a deep breath:

"Understand that every play you make is the energy and the electricity. Feed off the crowd!"

"Here we go, ladies!" someone shouts. "Champions on three!"

"One-two-three-CHAMPIONS!"

The team storms the court, Frese follows slowly into the now-roaring stadium, bee-lining for her black chair on the sideline. Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie comes over to shake hands, wearing the kind of crisp suit Frese wishes she could still fit into.

Talking with Frese, McCallie, herself a mother, touches her own belly sympathetically - a rare moment of tenderness between two generals.

Achieving the balance

Brenda Frese's coaching career is a long list of triumphs. She excelled in positions at less powerful programs, coming to Maryland in April 2002 already licking her chops for the national championship; in 2006, it was hers. She took her players to the NCAA tournament four consecutive times and last year landed the team's only No. 1 preseason ranking.

Yet she sometimes doubted that she could have what seemed to come easily to so many women: a family.

In the whirlwind of the college basketball calendar there is no good time to have a child, which is perhaps why so many female Division I coaches never do. Practices start in October and, if all goes well, the NCAA tournament wraps up in April. The rest of the year is consumed by camps and recruiting trips to gyms across the country, to lay the foundation for the team's future.

Frese's personal life had long been secondary to her sport. After graduating from Arizona, she took coaching jobs across her native Midwest - Kent State, Iowa State, Ball State, Minnesota - at one point working at Little Caesars and waiting tables to make extra money.

She never learned to cook much, though, or decorate: She moved too often. In one four-year span, she relocated three times, working her way up the hierarchy, willing to recruit harder than anyone else, to diagram the smartest plays and to telegraph her own energy into her players.

By the time Maryland came calling, her first marriage was over, done in by the stress of her grueling schedule and endless travel. Though College Park quickly felt like home to her, and the team and support staff functioned very much like a family, she says she still longed for a husband and children.

Her own mother had raised six kids while holding down two jobs; Frese wished she, too, could achieve that balance.

Then she met Mark Thomas, a producer for the coach's show, Under the Shell. Not only was Thomas a rabid Terps fan, deeply kind and tall enough to date a leggy ex-basketball star, but, she discovered as they fell in love, marrying in 2005, that he was game to take on child-rearing responsibilities that would make parenthood possible for them both.

This fall, her players guessed what was up before she told them. An assistant coach had gotten pregnant a few years back, and the girls believed they knew the signs. Coach B's clothes "fit weird," they said. At the August team meeting when she first flashed pictures of their two new "verbal commitments" - sonogram images of the twins - the team smacked ecstatic high-fives.

It took a minute for the due date to sink in. "March?" The players said, bewildered. "That's tournament time!"

Frese vowed to be there as much as she could during the season. But by mid-October, her back hurt so badly that she could barely climb stairs, and she turned over practices, and some game duties, to assistant Daron Park. She missed several away games in the fall because of illness or distance; she was terrified of ending up on bed rest or, worse, having premature babies in a far-off intensive care unit. Telling the team that she wouldn't be able to go with them to California at Thanksgiving, she nearly cried.

These decisions were heart-breaking for a coach who had never missed a game in her six years at Maryland, and they only got harder. Consulting with her doctor before the Wake Forest game in early January, she decided that she could no longer risk traveling at all. She felt so guilty leaving the team, especially her seniors, who wouldn't have another season with her.

The players, for their part, seemed to take the news in stride. They had decided that playing 14 games in 31 days, as they did earlier in the season, was nothing compared to carrying twins. Although the assistant coach left the team after her second child, the players said they never doubted that Frese would soon come back to them for good.

Sometimes they couldn't help missing her, though. On the trip down to North Carolina, just before facing Wake Forest, they watched the tape of their now-storied championship game, reliving the rainbow arc of Toliver's key three-pointer.

And there was Coach B, tall and trim in a pale tailored suit, prowling the sideline and screaming her head off for the win.

They said they couldn't get over how different she looked.

Confined to the couch

Four days after the Duke game, Frese spreads a blanket over her lap and settles onto the basement couch of her Laurel home, as though preparing to watch a Lifetime movie special instead of a vicious contest against the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She palms her big belly as Thomas fiddles with the channels. At least they can view this match on cable, instead of squinting at a blurry streaming video off the Web - the only option for some games she has missed.

Whether at home or courtside, she's making an effort to watch more calmly these days, eliminating sudden movements, though sometimes she can't manage to contain herself.

During the Duke game, when Harper was fouled wickedly on a fast break, Frese reared out of her black chair in protest. Even after the Terps went on to trounce the Blue Devils, she couldn't relax for the rest of the night. Something about pregnancy seems to make adrenaline stay in her system.

Thomas finds the right channel just before the tip-off. The game doesn't start well, with starters missing shots and committing early fouls. Frese tries not to react, though occasionally she draws in a sharp breath that sounds like something straight out of Lamaze class.

She resists calling her assistants with mid-game advice, leaving her staff to do its work. But more than a hundred miles away, she maintains a coach's umbilical awareness of her players; when Langhorne sinks her third basket, Frese knows immediately that she has finally done it - surpassed Maryland's all-time leading women's scorer, Vicky Bullett.

"Got the record," Frese whispers softly.

Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, the announcers note, is also on the verge of making history as the third ACC coach to be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Ryan has led her team for more than 30 years, and she reportedly made recruiting calls from her hospital bed after cancer surgery. She never married, never had children.

At halftime, the Terrapins are trailing 34-33. Frese says she wishes she could be in the locker room with them. Instead, she steps out for what seems like her millionth bathroom break of the day.

What if the team doesn't get it together? She has always known that not being there for a loss would be just as hard as missing a win.

The score stays close until there are a little less than six minutes left, and freshman Marah Strickland deposits a three-pointer; soon afterward, Toliver follows suit. The Virginia coach roars like a wounded lion. Maryland has wedged open a decent lead.

With seconds left in the game, Thomas leans over and plants a kiss on his wife.

"The kiss of relief," he says.

Her night won't end here, though. She'll stay up until she hears from the team, then mull over some Georgia Tech footage before bed.

Expecting a surprise

Many of Frese's players intend to be mothers themselves one day, and they applaud the two-for-one efficiency of twins. They can't agree, however, on whether boys or girls are preferable.

Coleman, a combination guard-forward, says she hopes only for sons. What if a daughter wanted to be a cheerleader or, more horrible, a ballerina? As a child, Coleman could never stand recitals and dressing up.

"I went to one Girl Scout meeting, and that was all," she said. "There was no adventure in it."

But Frese is keeping an open mind: She likes a few surprises in her hyper-scheduled life, and believes that both sexes come with their particular joys and sorrows - some of which she's learning a lot more about as she fights through her third trimester. Besides, as any recruiter understands, you can't overestimate the value of a person's spirit.

All this suspense has sometimes confounded team members and friends, who don't know whether to shop for pale pink or powder blue.

But Maryland red is always a safe bet.

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com

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