Brenda Frese rested her chin on her left hand as she sat on the University of Maryland bench during a recent game at George Washington.
Even with her team winning by 42 points in the closing seconds, the Terps head coach, from Laurel, still jumped to her feet to shout encouragement after a hustle play by one of her reserves.
With six seconds left on the clock, Frese rose from her seat once again and walked to midcourt for a handshake and hug with GW head coach Jennifer Rizzotti, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, as the final buzzer sounded.
The Terps of Maryland and Frese — their successful coach since 2002 — had vanquished yet another opponent as one of the top basketball programs in the country.
In a year of turmoil in the athletic department in College Park, North Laurel resident Frese once again has her program above the fray with few issues on and off the court.
Since the June death of lineman Jordan McNair, the football program has been in turmoil. That led to the dismissal of athletic trainers and administrative leave for football coach D.J. Durkin, who was eventually fired in late October.
Maryland men’s assistant basketball coach Matt Brady was placed on a six-game suspension to start the season for a rules violation that was self-imposed.
So how do those struggles affect the women’s basketball program?
“It really doesn’t,” said Frese, 48. “From day one obviously there is great empathy; you never want to see different [bad] things impact your university and your department but for us it doesn’t change from what we do every single day — just continue to put the best team and best program that we can.”
Frese is in her 17th year at Maryland and has taken the Terps to the NCAA tournament 14 times. Her current team was 7-0 and ranked No. 7 in the country after a 31-point win at home Sunday against UMBC.
The Terps won the national title in 2006, and she was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year in 2013 and earned the same award in the Big 10 in 2015, a year after Maryland switched conferences. Frese, a native of Iowa, was the Associated Press Coach of the Year in 2002 in her one season at the University of Minnesota.
The next season, she was at Maryland, where 40 of her players have gained academic all-conference honors with 49 all-conference awards on the court. She is closing in on 500 wins as a college coach, which includes two years at Ball State in Indiana.
Frese points to at least three pillars that have sustained her program.
“Obviously relationships are key,” said Frese, whose recruiting class for 2019 was named the best in the nation. “Those relationships are what I think helps us establish ... what we have been able to do. You have to have a strong work ethic to be able to do that. The third one I would say is balance. If you don’t want to burn out in this business, you have to have an ability to have great balance with what you are doing.”
A lot of Frese’s balance comes from her husband, Mark Thomas, a 1988 graduate of Laurel High School.
Thomas, part of Laurel’s state title football team in 1987, was an Emmy Award-winning sports broadcaster/producer who worked several years in the Washington television market. He was the writer, producer and reporter for “The Washington Post High School Sports Show” that aired on Comcast SportsNet for about six years, through 2004.
Thomas interviewed Frese regularly in 2004 for a show, “Under The Shell,” about her Maryland team. They were married Aug. 20, 2005, and had twin boys, Tyler and Markus, on Feb. 17, 2008.
The boys have been involved with the Savage Boys & Girls Club, and have played basketball, soccer, flag football and tennis.
“I try to expose them to as much as I can,” Thomas said.
On a recent Monday evening, Thomas worked to get supper ready for the family of four after the boys had arrived back from piano lessons at their home in a gated community in North Laurel.
Tyler was diagnosed with leukemia in September, 2010 but he is now cancer-free and totally fine, according to Thomas.
Thomas and the boys often join the Terps on road trips to the Big Ten Conference and NCAA tournaments. There are challenges, however, with Frese and her staff turning their attention to scouting the next opponent right after a tourney victory.
“It is nonstop work,” said Thomas, adding that Frese does her best to be a mom at tournaments.
Thomas’ parents live in Laurel and are frequent fans at Maryland home games. They also help raise the boys.
“Anyone who is in it does know how demanding this profession is,” Frese said. “From our end it takes a village. To have an extension of family not only a husband who is a stay at home … having family here in Maryland has been a huge reason why I have been able to do what I do because of the support that I have on the home front.”
One of six children, Frese was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where her parents Bill and Donna Frese, still live.
She has a brother who played college baseball at Northern Iowa, and her younger sister, Stacy, 42, played in the WNBA with Utah in 2000. Another sister, Marsha, was one of her assistants and is the former head coach at Missouri, Kansas City.
Frese began playing sports at an early age.
“She played softball and she was a pretty good first baseman,” said her mother, Donna. “She was actually pretty good at volleyball.”
Frese headed to the University of Arizona to play basketball.
“After her first year she was quite homesick. She thought of playing at Iowa and talked to the coach down there,” Donna said.
But while back home the summer after her freshman year, Frese realized that some of her high school friends had also moved away.
“As the summer went on she found things had changed,” her mother said.
Frese was hurt late in her career at Arizona. She graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in communications and later that year, she became an assistant coach at Kent State in Ohio. She was then the assistant coach at Iowa State before landing her first head job at Ball State in 1999.
“When Brenda worked with me at Iowa State I knew she would be a very successful head coach,” longtime Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly wrote in an email. “She embraced all the things that it takes to be successful in my opinion — she is hard working and at the same time committed to her family — which she translates to her teams.
“(Women’s basketball) needs the next wave of great coaches and Brenda is one of those.”
Nearly 20 years later, she has sent several of her former Maryland players and assistant coaches to head coaching jobs, including Towson head coach Diane Richardson and Rice head coach and former Laurel resident Tina Langley.
Other Frese proteges include ex-WNBA player Kristi Toliver, 31, who became an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards in October. Toliver has played overseas and with the Washington Mystics. She also helped lead Maryland to the national title in 2006.
“That day it was announced, it was incredible feeling,” Frese said of Toliver’s hiring into the NBA. “Obviously to be able to see it nationally, go across the wire. No one deserves it more. It is pretty surreal to have that opportunity at such a young age to be in the NBA.
“I strongly believe my job as a head coach is about mentoring. It’s not only just the value of the student-athlete but helping your staff achieve their dreams,” Frese said. “That is probably the most satisfaction I get.”