In April 2022, Maryland women’s basketball suffered three devastating blows in a 48-hour span. Decorated junior guard Ashley Owusu, first-team All-Big Ten forward Angel Reese and stretch forward Mimi Collins announced their intentions to leave the program.
Many wondered if this marked the end of success for head coach Brenda Frese at Maryland, but settling was never an option heading into her 21st season.
After growing up in Iowa with seven siblings and being a first-hand witness to the hard work of two devoted parents, overcoming adversity was instilled in her DNA. Where most coaches would struggle after losing key contributors, Frese’s family upbringing prepared her to persevere and register arguably the most impressive season of her career.
The Frese family is derived from hard work and persistence, so assembling a team capable of competing in the Big Ten is simply all she knows.
“You can’t avoid competition [in the Frese family] whether it be for the last slice of pizza, who’s having the better season, or who’s gonna get the one name-brand shirt that our parents could afford to buy us?” Marsha Frese, a sister of Brenda, said.
Frese has led Maryland to over 500 wins, three Final Fours, and a national championship in 2006.
In the 2022-23 season, Maryland was expected to struggle with a team featuring nine newcomers and only one returning starter. Frese quieted the critics and guided an undersized team to the program’s 19th consecutive 20-win season, clinched with a February blowout victory over Northwestern.
The Terps have seven victories over top-25 opponents and have narrowly increased their scoring output from the previous season. Frese lost several key players in the past, but this season should have quieted any qualms about her guidance of the program.
Frese grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to parents Donna and her late father Bill, who worked during the economic crunch of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939.
Bill Frese’s family lost their farming business due to the Great Depression, which led to them moving to Norway, Iowa, where he ultimately started working side hustles to earn money.
He delivered newspapers before he realized that roughly a dozen families would give him a few extra cents to pick them up weekly. Bill even found a place to store the newspapers and when he collected enough, he would pay someone to take them to a recycling center where he made a few extra dollars.
Donna, 83, the oldest of four, similarly grew up milking cows and helping to work on the farm. To this day, she still works, despite numerous requests from her children to retire.
“When you have a living example [of hard work and perseverance] throughout your entire childhood, it starts there,” Frese said.
Frese’s mother is considered a “tough lady,” as she used to get her cavities filled without the typical pain-relieving Novocaine injection.
When you experience perseverance firsthand, overcoming roster changes and defying the odds become just another set of challenges to conquer.
Owusu announced her decision to leave via Twitter after reported off-court events led to her departure. The Virginia native averaged 14.6 points and five rebounds per game in three seasons. The 6-foot shifty guard was the No. 2 ranked point guard in class of 2019, according to ESPN.
A few hours later, Reese, a Baltimore native, sent shockwaves through the college basketball landscape when she entered her name in the transfer portal. Reese, the program’s highest ranked recruit, was a force in her two seasons for the Terps.
Now, Reese is averaging 25.7 points and 15.6 rebounds as a point forward for the LSU Tigers.
Then Collins, a reserve forward, announced her intentions to leave Maryland after not qualifying for a graduate degree program.
The losses weren’t a shock to Frese, as she’s been a firsthand witness of several roster changes over the past decade.
It’s natural for one to wonder if they’re doing anything wrong to force the departures, but Frese understands that every player may not be suited for Maryland basketball.
“I used to always reflect when somebody left the program and take it very personally [like] what did I do wrong? How could I have fixed it?” Frese said.
But, the 52-year-old head coach realized that not every player is a fit for her program. So she sought to lure the best players to Maryland, whether it was via recruiting or the transfer portal to compete in the ultra-competitive Big Ten Conference.
In a year where many tempered their expectations for Maryland, Frese’s performance this season is evidence of why she’s one of the best coaches in the country.
Maryland’s 2022-23 roster featured nine newcomers and one returning starter on a team lacking the size of previous teams.
Frese secured commitments from decorated SEC guards Brinae Alexander (Vanderbilt) and Lavender Briggs (Florida). She also went to Princeton to bring 2021 Ivy League Player of the Year Abby Meyers to Maryland.
Alexander, a recent 1,000-point scorer and key starter, was relied upon heavily to score in bunches for a Vanderbilt team that never qualified for the NCAA Tournament. This season, however, the 6-foot guard has scorched the competition with a 44.3% three-point percentage while shining in her new role off the bench.
“I’ve enjoyed this year in my role of coming off the bench because I get to see how the game is being played [and] what’s happening,” Alexander said on Feb. 24.
Briggs, who sat out last season with a stress fracture in her shin, has recorded seven double-digit scoring games for the Terps.
Meyers, a Potomac, Maryland, native, has played well for her beloved Terps with 14.3 points per game. She has added a wealth of experience to a new team.
Frese’s squad finished the regular season at 24-5 overall and 15-3 in Big Ten play, also adding seven victories over top-25 opponents to its impressive resume.
This year’s club has narrowly increased its average point total from last season, as it ranks fourth in the conference with 79.1 points per game.
This isn’t the first time Frese has lost blue-chip talent, as a laundry list of names that have donned the black and red in previous seasons have left for different pastures.
Washington Mystics teammates Shakira Austin (Ole Miss) and Natasha Cloud (Saint Joseph’s), Los Angeles Sparks guard Lexie Brown (Duke), Ohio State guard Taylor Mikesell, and Destiny Slocum (Oregon and Arkansas) all jettisoned Maryland for other locations.
As Frese has lost players to the business side of the portal, she’s also built meaningful relationships with the players she has able to adopt from it.
After playing three seasons at Harvard, Katie Benzan decided to transfer, as she wanted to play at a power conference school. Maryland, George Washington, Texas and North Carolina offered scholarships for Benzan to continue her education. She initially committed to Texas but decided to reopen her recruitment after an abrupt coaching change. The idea of playing for Frese and Maryland began to look appealing, as she was impressed with the competitive and loving environment Frese had established.
“I really loved Coach B right from the minute we met. Her reputation is a fierce woman and I really wanted to learn from a strong female coach,” Benzan said.
Benzan now owns the program’s three-point percentage record with a 47.4% clip and was the floor general on a pair of teams that made it to the Sweet 16.
But it was Benzan and Frese’s common problem that brought their relationship closer.
During her first season with Maryland in 2020-21, Benzan’s father John was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Frese could sympathize with her floor general, as she lost her father Bill to the same illness in January 2022.
Benzan had continuous concerns over the health of her father, but her coach lended herself as a resource and confidant to navigate a difficult time.
The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, which made it nearly impossible for Benzan to go home for wellness checks on her ailing father.
“She was that safe, loving, consistent, maternal figure, and coach that I needed in that moment,” Benzan said.
The concerns about his condition waned so heavily that Frese encouraged Benzan to use basketball as an outlet to release those emotions.
Benzan’s family kept Frese involved in his battle but refrained from telling Katie, as they wanted her to focus on being a student-athlete.
Benzan now works in the NBA’s Utah Jazz’s front office in the basketball operations department. She is appreciative of Frese’s “family-like” culture created at Maryland for support during such a difficult time.
“[Brenda Frese’s compassion] brought some light to a dark time,” Benzan said.
In this campaign’s regular-season finale versus Ohio State, Big Ten Network went inside a fiery Maryland huddle prior to the fourth quarter. The Terps were outscored 30-20 in the third, which didn’t sit well with their head coach.
Frese, visibly upset, challenged her team to be better on the offensive end and urged the importance of being reliable to their teammates.
The Terps outscored their opponent by seven and held on for the narrow 76-74 road victory.
“I personally love it. I think she just wants to win as badly as anyone else, if not more, right? And I think that just is a credit to how great of a coach she is,” Meyers said.