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In basketball and academics, Kristen Confroy has left her mark on Maryland

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The senior has never been the star, but the Terps have needed her steady presence.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Maryland vs Nebraska Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

When Kristen Confroy returned to College Park this summer for preseason workouts, she thought her senior season would last forever.

Instead of returning to campus in August like she had the three years prior, the team returned to campus in June to start preparing to represent Team USA in the World University Games. Even after the team returned to Taiwan in late August, there was still more than two months before Maryland opened the season against Albany.

But as the season got underway, it didn’t hit Confroy how fast it was moving until recently. The senior guard has a poster from Maryland Madness, which has the team’s schedule for the season at the bottom. The games are split into four columns, with the home games in bold. In the final month of her final regular season, only three games were in bold.

That’s what hit Confroy the hardest. She had three regular-season games left in the building that’s been a huge part of her life for the past four years.

“Early on, it was like, man, this is going to be a grind of a year,” she told Testudo Times last month. “But now here we are in February preparing for March and the end of the year. It’s really flown by for sure.”

When Confroy’s season ends, it will be different for her than other players. Instead of heading to the WNBA or overseas, Confroy will attend Wake Forest Medical School in the fall. It’s the next step in the journey of someone who prefers to stay out of the spotlight, but does enough to deserve it.

‘Truly my favorite’

Confroy’s athletic career started like any other kid. She played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and softball in the spring. She excelled at all three, and unlike most Division I athletes today, continued to play all three sports into high school.

As a goalie on the pitch, she was a two-time all-conference player and was a Second Team All-District player as a junior. As a shortstop, she won the Cleveland Plain Dealer Player of the Year as a junior, and some considered her a better softball prospect than a basketball prospect.

The arm strength and footwork that made her such a good softball player are on display every home game. During pregame introductions, every starter throws a headband into the crowd, and Confroy doesn’t hold back, usually launching a laser that reaches the far end of the lower bowl. Sometimes, it’s from a stand-still like an easy ground ball, and other times she throws on the run, looking like she could nab a would-be baserunner or fill in as the quarterback for the Maryland football team.

Those skills aren’t just for impressing the crowd, though. Confroy said playing soccer and softball helped make up for some of the deficiencies in her game heading into college.

“I was a shortstop in high school, and a lot of that is reading angles and being able to play balls, and that transferred over defensively into the basketball realm,” Confroy said. “A big adjustment I had coming into college basketball was everybody’s faster, bigger, stronger, so being able to have those reactions and make decisions faster, I credit that to soccer.”

But like all athletes, she had to choose what sport she wanted to play at the next level. Confroy was a potential Division I prospect in both softball and basketball, but it was the latter that won her over.

“Knowing softball was my best sport arguably, a lot of people were pushing in that direction,” Confroy said. “But playing at this level, you really have to be passionate at what you’re doing, and basketball was always was my favorite sport. It was truly my favorite and I love to play and I love to work out. I think to be successful at this level, you have to have that passion and the want to do that daily grind.”

Finding a home

For Trish Kruse, Confroy’s coach at Solon High School, the qualities that made Confroy a special player stood out almost immediately. Kruse said that Confroy did the same things at Solon that she does now at Maryland: knock down threes, play smart defense and look to get her teammates involved. What Kruse found out early on, though, was that the guard’s basketball IQ was off the charts.

“Her knowledge of the game is at an ultimate high,” Kruse said. “I don’t think I’ve ever coached a smarter player than her.”

Even with the talent she had, Confroy was always looking to improve. She had always put more time into basketball than her other sports, but continued to work towards being an impact player at the next level. Since she was an excellent student, Confroy would spend the study hall periods during her junior and senior year hoisting shots in the gym. Kruse said that even when it wasn’t basketball season, you could still find her in the gym after practice or a game, extending the day even longer just to make herself a better player.

“You don’t see kids that have a three- or four-hour softball game, then come in and shoot in the gym for an hour and a half or two hours,” she said. “I think that’s what really set her aside from anybody else is the amount of work, whether she was playing another sport or not, she worked her tail off.”

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Indiana vs Maryland Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Confroy also worked her tail off in the classroom. She became interested in biology and chemistry later in high school, and decided she wanted to study medicine along with being a Division I basketball player. She said was very upfront about her intentions during the recruiting process, which turned some programs away. Among the classes in the neurobiology and physiology major in which Confroy will receive a degree in May are Calculus I and II and Organic Chemistry, which have been known to make or break students during their early years on campus.

Those classes are just the early stages of the major, and that doesn’t even include lab requirements. It’s a packed schedule for any student, and even more so for a student-athlete. When Confroy visited Maryland, head coach Brenda Frese had a different approach. Former teammates Malina Howard and Brionna Jones both graduated with degrees in pre-med fields, and Lori Bjork graduated from the Mayo Clinic Medical School last year after receiving her masters in kinesiology from Maryland in 2010.

“A lot of big-time programs want you to focus on basketball, not so much the student aspect,” Confroy said. “Coach B was the most adamant about me pursuing that, knowing that we are women and our athletic careers are only going to take us so far. She’s really into investing in us as leaders and as women outside of these lines.”

Making an impact

Confroy knew that by choosing Maryland, she would be a “little fish in a big sea.” Although the Terps had lost program legend Alyssa Thomas the previous year, Confroy joined a roster with three future All-Americans in Jones, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Lexie Brown. Instead of being the player a team was built around, she now had to figure out how to fit into the team.

“It’s exciting, but it’s like, okay, everybody here is talented, so what can I bring to the table,” Confroy said. “That’s where I found my success here, is really knowing that I can fill in the gaps, I can make other people better.”

Confroy carved out a role in Maryland’s rotation during her freshman year, averaging 3.9 points in 12.6 minutes per game. As a sophomore, she got to show off a weapon she always had.

With two older brothers, Confroy said she became an outside shooter out of necessity. Her brothers would just block everything at the rim, so it was the only way she could score. In just her third career start, Confroy hit four threes in a loss to UConn at Madison Square Garden. Three weeks later, she drained eight against Northwestern, tying the program single-game record. She finished the 2015-16 season with 73 made threes, the most by any sophomore in Maryland history.

Looking back on it, Confroy is hesitant to give herself credit, saying it was the things that don’t show up in the box score that got her on the floor. Besides emerging as a sharpshooter that year, she also averaged 4.4 rebounds a game and had the third-highest assist-to-turnover ratio on the team.

“Early on, I knew three-point shooting would be the biggest thing for me in terms of what’s on the stat sheet,” she said. “But really I think where I found my way on the court is doing the little things that end up on the stat sheet. Diving for the loose balls, setting good screens, and those sorts of things.”

One last ride

With 1:36 left in Confroy’s final regular-season game at Xfinity Center, Maryland’s lead against Nebraska was dwindling. A double-digit lead had been whittled down to a one-possession game with Kaila Charles headed to the free throw line for two shots.

Charles made the first, and instead of leaving Stephanie Jones and Brianna Fraser in to box out in case of a miss, Frese motioned for them to get back and be ready to defend. Confroy took Fraser’s spot on the left side of the lane, in between 6’5 Kate Cain and 6’1 Nicea Eliely.

Charles’ second free throw bounced off the side of the rim, and it looked all but certain that Cain would come away with the ball. The freshman center raised her hand up, but it was met by Confroy’s. Despite the eight-inch height difference, Confroy got her right hand on the ball and came down, forcing Cain to reach over Confroy and fight for possession. The referee called a jump ball, and the arrow favored the Terps. Maryland would win by two points on Senior Day.

Chasing down loose balls or snagging rebounds she has no business getting are classic Kristen Confroy plays. Despite standing just 5’9, she’s pulled down 5.2 rebounds a game this season. The little things she stresses were starting to make a big impact.

“One thing with Kristen is she holds our team together,” Charles said. “She does a lot of stuff that people don’t notice. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t be as successful as we are today.”

As a senior, Confroy has had more responsibilities on and off the court. With Jones and Walker-Kimbrough being the pillars of the team the past two years, Confroy joked before the season that whenever she got the ball, she would first look to see if one of them was open, then find her own shot. This year, she’s had to be more assertive on offense than ever before.

Confroy is also the elder statesman on a generally inexperienced team, and there’s no one like Jones or Walker-Kimbrough to be a voice in the locker room. It’s something she wouldn’t have been prepared to do as a freshman. But after becoming more comfortable with the team and attending Point Guard College—a program that helps players reach their highest potential in the game—Confroy was ready for an opportunity that was three years in the making.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Maryland Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

According to Charles, Confroy has a selfless leadership style, which should come as no surprise. Just as she tries to make her teammates better on the court, she’s always looking to encourage them off it. Some days, players will find notes in their locker from Confroy with advice on basketball or just life in general.

“She’s always pushing herself to go that extra step,” Charles said. “And she’s taught me a lot in these last two years, always being humble and staying connected to your roots, don’t let anything get to your head and keep working hard.”

That’s a big transformation for a player who, according to Frese after the win over Nebraska, didn’t act like she belonged her first year on campus.

“To see her growth in four years, from this shy player coming in, no eye contact, not comfortable in her own skin ... to see that growth of six Big Ten titles and a Final Four, to med school, [she’s] ready to tackle what’s next,” Frese said.

The next step

On and off the court, Confroy conveys an unflappable demeanor, so what happened after an unexpected home loss to Purdue on Feb. 15 seemed odd.

The senior made the walk from the locker room to the media room she’s done many times, but instead of her usual calm demeanor, she looked flustered, her eyes watery from crying in the locker room after the game. It appeared the fact that there was just over a month left in her basketball career was starting to set in.

Confroy will finish the season, finish classes in May, then head to Winston-Salem. She originally wanted to go into orthopedics after seeing the experiences teammates had from recovering with injuries, but didn’t like the lack of patient interaction that comes with being a surgeon. That steered her towards the non-operative side of sports medicine, where she can develop relationships with a patient and then refer them to someone else if they need surgery. It’s a career path that requires four years of medical school, a three-year residency in family medicine and a two-year fellowship in sports medicine.

When it’s all said and done, Confroy will hopefully be a doctor practicing in the field of sports medicine. That’s her goal right now, but she said going to medical school could open her eyes to other opportunities.

Whatever Confroy ends up doing, it will probably come back to one thing. Whether it’s been her time on the basketball court, excelling in the classroom, or taking the time to serve as the president of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, she’s always found a way to push herself and leave somewhere a better place than where she found it.

“I think that’s at the very core of who I am and how I’ve been raised, just really what the idea of service is beyond medicine,” she said. “Medicine is a service industry, you’re taking care of people, and it really aligns with what I believe and how I see the world.”