In the two weeks between her first Big Ten tournament championship and fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance, Brenda Frese went to Canton, Ohio, to see a high school freshman for the first time.
The Maryland women’s basketball coach had heard what would soon be apparent at the Canton Memorial Civic Center and, later, across Division I arenas: Taylor Mikesell could shoot. In a 2015 regional-final loss, the first-year starter (and future Big Ten Freshman of the Year) hit four 3-pointers and finished with a team-high 17 points.
Soon after, Mikesell recalled Friday, she was in College Park for a visit. She’d visited Florida State first, and would see nearby Ohio State soon after, but it was Maryland that started to feel like home. Early in her junior year, she committed, just another star recruit in what would be Frese’s 12th top-10 class at the school. (She finalized her 13th such haul in 17 years in November.)
Frese has built her Maryland program up in such a way that it sells itself: the All-America honors and WNBA draft picks, the high-tempo pace and national TV games. But in recruiting, coaches are not advertising the program so much as selling the idea of a long-term relationship. There is only so much time to make that pitch. Frese has embraced an early-bird philosophy: Better to know a big-time recruit before she hits the big time.
“I think the way recruiting has gone, people have learned [that], and fortunately for me, I think we were able to get there earlier,” Frese said as the third-seeded Terps prepared for their NCAA tournament opener against Big South champion and No. 14 seed Radford. “So we've been able to establish our classes and get out ahead. Obviously, when you get verbal commitments early, then you can transition through your classes quite early. … I think that's been the biggest thing: the luxury to be able to get out ahead.”
Many of the Terps who will take the floor Saturday at Xfinity Center knew they’d end up in College Park years before they enrolled.
Junior guard Sarah Myers committed before her sophomore year started. Junior forward Stephanie Jones, the sister of former Maryland star Brionna Jones, announced in September of her junior year at Aberdeen. So did junior wing Blair Watson. And senior forward Brianna Fraser.
It’s not that the sport’s recruiting calendar skews closer to football, where verbal offers before a prospect’s junior year are rare, than to lacrosse, where freshman-year commits were once commonplace. In fact, the sport rarely rewards Brenda-come-latelys.
According to a 2017 NCAA survey, 48 percent of Division I women's basketball players were first contacted by a college recruiter in the ninth grade or earlier, the highest rate of any sport, men's or women's. Maryland offered Azzi Fudd, a star at St. John’s College High (D.C.) and the first sophomore to be named the Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year, a scholarship as a sixth-grader. She later told ESPN she didn’t know exactly what that meant.
Stephanie Jones comes from a remarkable basketball family, and she's following in her sister's footsteps at the University of Maryland. But with a rage to win that belies her perpetual smile, she's her own person and a dependable rock for the 26-3 Terps as they prepare for postseason play.
But Frese, despite turnover on her staff, often has not had to wait long for the next big thing to say yes. Which only works to her advantage in the next cycle. The early commits become self-sustaining, in a way, one wrapped-up class clearing the path to start another. And it’s not as difficult to project a precocious 14-year-old girl as an impact player in college as it would be a boy the same age.
“When you're seeing these kids in ninth or 10th grade, you can see a lot of that,” Frese said. “I mean, that's not an end-all, be-all for everybody. I think post players develop later, just with coordination. But for guards, a lot of times, you're going to usually stay the same height that you are. A lot of that presents early.”
That was the case with Myers. The Terps staff first noticed her at a summer scouting tournament, then checked in to see a few games her freshman year at South Forsyth High School (Ga.).
Afterward, Myers was invited to the program’s Elite Camp, an on-campus showcase Frese oversees. She got to see College Park, in all its summer splendor — “It was a beautiful day when they showed it to me, so everything was, like, perfect” — and even future teammates. Among the fellow campers at the Elite Camps she attended: 2018 graduate Kristen Confroy, along with Fraser and junior wing Kaila Charles.
When Maryland has been late to the party, Frese made up for it with face time. Forward Shakira Austin, the only freshman on the league’s All-Defensive Team, received early offers from Virginia and Wake Forest. Florida, Michigan and Virginia Tech were in on her early, too.
Shakira Austin, an 18-year-old, 6-foot-5 McDonald's All-America forward, leads the No. 7 Terps in rebounding, blocks and double doubles this season while also ranking fourth in scoring and overall steals.
But Frese, maybe more than any other head coach, was committed to seeing the Virginia native. Austin estimated that between high school and Amateur Athletic Union action, Frese watched about 20 games of hers.
"That's really what caught my attention the most," Austin, a top-five recruit, said of Frese's hands-on approach.
In the winter of her junior year, Austin visited College Park with her family. Frese took them to Noodles & Company to chat and eat. Out of nowhere, Austin recalled, she felt a craving.
“We were just talking about the best situation for me, and when I'm sitting here listening, I was like, 'This is the best situation,' ” she said. “So I just said, 'Well, let's go sign some papers.' ”