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On the home court with Brenda Frese

For Howard Magazine
For Brenda Frese, "the home court" carries a double meaning.

“Markus and Tyler, did you both take your shoes off?” presses the twins’ mother, Brenda Frese. “And did you find all the balls downstairs?” comes the follow-up inquiry.

“Mom!” cries Markus, struggling mightily to remove his footwear. “The shoe is stuck on me!”

“C’mon,” replies his mom in her smooth, comforting tone that lights the dark nooks and crannies of their house atop a windswept bluff in a gated community of North Laurel. “I can help you.” Then she does.

In her demanding, high-profile job as women’s basketball coach at the University of Maryland, Frese, like other coaches, craves home-court advantage. She can always count on having that special edge: built-in support from local fans, along with a deep familiarity of the hardwood within the 17,950-seat Xfinity Center.

But to this tall, high-octane former standout athlete at the University of Arizona, home-court advantage carries a double meaning. She adores the up-tempo life at the helm of a highly respected program and the accolades it has brought her. It culminated in 2006, when the Terps captured the national championship in a thrilling overtime win versus Duke. 

At the close of another workday, though, Frese relishes the 12-mile drive home to her husband, Mark Thomas, and their 6-year-old boys.

Rebound

The twins attend a private school a short drive from the College Park campus. Thomas chauffeurs them to and from each morning. But at the end of the school day, there’s an added treat: as often as possible, Thomas drives them to the university, where they gather to watch Brenda conduct afternoon practice.

While hard work has earned her financial rewards and public adulation, Frese and Thomas haven’t made success under the backboards their be-all and end-all. Like any family, they face their share of challenges that have nothing to do with basketball. 

When Tyler was diagnosed with childhood leukemia in 2010, he was required to get chemotherapy every day, his father recalls — 39 straight months of it. “I was the main person handling all of the prescriptions, the refills. They all had side effects.” If the child developed a fever of 100.3 degrees or higher, he says, “I had to take him to the emergency room at Hopkins in Baltimore.”

Having a child with leukemia was a wake-up call that has tempered their outlook and helped them to meditate more deeply on what truly matters. “Life … is going by way too fast,” Frese says softly. “You don’t know how long you have on this earth. When I come home to my boys, they don’t care whether I’ve won or lost.”

When she and Mark learned that Tyler was ill, “your initial reaction is shock,” she recalls. “Later, you try to put meaning behind it.” Tapping her high-profile position in the world of collegiate athletics, she adds, she wants to take this stressful experience “and use it as a platform to [fight] childhood cancer.”

Tyler finished chemotherapy in December 2013 and will be officially be in remission if he stays cancer free through May. Though he still gets monthly checkups, the family is finally regaining a sense of normalcy.

“It’s fantastic!” Thomas says. “All of his checkups have been clean. He’s a healthy, normal boy. It’s just a huge weight off of our shoulders.”

The home team

On this Wednesday night, between bites of take-out food from their favorite Italian eatery, Pasta Plus, the family huddles in the basement recreation room to engage in some early-evening family bonding. This time, it’s a fast-paced pickup game of (what else?) basketball using kid-size hoops and enough energy to power half of the street lamps in Howard County. The chaos, controlled and sensibly measured, is peppered with “oohs” and “ahhs.” Mom unleashes a graceful fast break, followed in hot pursuit by the boys. Up and down, back and forth. Heavy breathing that tests stamina
and perseverance while delivering a matchless aerobic workout.

The recreation room also functions as a kind of sports bar in miniature. The collage of handsome, framed newspaper headlines lining the walls tells the 44-year-old Frese’s backstory — how she guided her young athletes to the top of the basketball heap. Screams one headline: “The Maryland women’s basketball program has been constructed in its coaches’ image.” There’s an image of the net being cut down, signifying a win of gargantuan proportions. There’s another photo, this one of a pensive, focused Frese communicating strategy with her players on the sidelines. 

The entrance to the rec room has a sign that reads “Welcome to the Jungle.” Visitors are greeted by a real popcorn machine, the kind you see in movie theaters. 

“But it’s a pain to clean,” says Thomas. At which point he and a visitor step into a “pseudo-theater.”

It was his idea, he explains, to include the viewing room in the familial repertoire of cool stuff. “She’ll watch kids’ movies here,” he says. “I also made it so she can hook her laptop up and watch game film” on the screen, which measures around 7 feet diagonally.

Game on!

“Tyler, no grabbing!” Mom declares, her voice at once modulated and soothing.

“Dee-fense, dee-fense!” someone sings. In a flash, Mom grabs the ball and scrambles downcourt, handing it off to Tyler, who makes the shot. Mom gives her boy a well-deserved high five.

Swish! With a final bucket, the action on the hoops front begins to dial down.

“Are you tired?” one of the boys asks Mom.

“I am,” she says. Nonetheless, it was a resoundingly impressive performance, considering she’d been at work all day and, after things finally settle down for the night on the home front, must spend more time reviewing game film. 

The pickup game leaves just enough time to get one of the boys to indoor soccer practice in Jessup. Thomas and Frese gently move their sons to their next activity, making sure they have what they need and, more importantly, get there safely.

Right-hand man

Thomas, 44, who grew up in West Laurel, says his role as a stay-at-home dad wasn’t part of the original marital plan. Up with the boys at 6 in the morning, he gets them off to school. “I make healthy veggie smoothies” for breakfast, he says. After he drops off the boys, it’s back home for Dad. “It gives me a chance to get showered and shaved. It also gives me a chance to get a workout in between my domestic duties.” 

Thomas, a receiver and kicker on Laurel High School’s 1987 state championship football team, pauses, casting a warm smile. “In a way,” he reflects, “my life prepared me to be her husband. Growing up in the sports world, I totally do understand the demands of her job. I’m totally on board with all of it.”

The journalism degree Thomas earned at College Park indirectly led him to Frese. He was working behind the scenes on her TV show, “Under the Shell,” on Comcast SportsNet and got to know her well. 

“Obviously, she’s an attractive woman,” he says. “Our relationship happened naturally.”

Their first date was in 2004, when Frese had just come back from a road game in Colorado. “I gave her a ride home. We stopped and had something to eat” across from her townhouse near The Mall in Columbia, he says. “We talked about how we both enjoyed travel and talked about places we’ve been and places we want to go.”

Frese has another fan in Kevin Anderson, who says she excels at both of her jobs. “Brenda is an extraordinary mother,” the university’s athletic director says, “and places a tremendous emphasis on spending time with her family. Her sons attend many of our home games and are always present at practices. Brenda has cultivated a wonderful family atmosphere and serves as an outstanding role model for all of our student-athletes.”

While Frese says she loves the hold her lightning-fast lifestyle has on her, she looks grimly back on one job in her home state of Iowa that she would rather forget.

“One summer,” she says, a hint of anxiety growing in her otherwise composed demeanor, as if in the midst of a horrible dream, “I detasseled corn. It was miserable. It was brutally hot. Stalks would hit your neck.”

Then, faster than a game-winning shot at the buzzer, she morphs from rural to suburban life. Turning to her son, she asks, ”Tyler, you want me to fix you another plate? You done?”

And then it’s off to soccer practice.  

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