Women's Program Is Built to Last

Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow, left, was determined to hire Coach Brenda Frese, who led the Terrapins to the Final Four four years later.
Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow, left, was determined to hire Coach Brenda Frese, who led the Terrapins to the Final Four four years later. (By Presten Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

BOSTON, April 3 -- The night before the most important sporting event in University of Maryland history, the school's athletic director paced across her Atlanta hotel room, preoccupied by an entirely different pursuit. The men's basketball team readied to play Indiana in the final of the 2002 NCAA tournament, but Debbie Yow chatted on her cellphone until almost midnight and stirred out of bed at 3 a.m., driven by a singular focus: hire Brenda Frese as the women's basketball coach.

That Yow worried about her then-mediocre program that night typifies the successful link used in rebuilding the Terrapins, who will play in their first NCAA women's title game Tuesday against Duke. At Maryland, players and coaches said, the women's team has been propelled by the success of the men's program, not overshadowed by it.

Frese took over as coach two days after the men defeated Indiana, and she has lured top recruits to College Park by promising to imitate that success. Yow -- buoyed partly by the lucrative men's title -- funneled twice as much money into women's basketball. And four years later, the result is the team's first Final Four appearance since 1989.

"We looked together at what the men's team was doing and said: 'Okay, great. So we can do the same thing,' " said Frese, 35. "It was kind of a model."

Frese was convinced her team could succeed because it enjoyed the same luxuries as the men's program: a new arena in Comcast Center; a well-funded and well-established athletic department; a plethora of high-level recruits playing within 30 miles of campus. Those selling points helped attract five prep all-Americans to Maryland, including two -- Laura Harper and Crystal Langhorne -- hotly pursued by well-established women's power Connecticut. And after the Terrapins lost in the NCAA tournament in 2004 and 2005, players vowed to return until they equaled the accomplishment of the 2002 men's team.

"We always wanted to do what they did," junior Shay Doron said. "We're a separate team, but we wanted to reach that same level."

After Tuesday, the women face their next hurdle: competing for attention in an area suddenly teeming with successful men's college programs -- Maryland, Georgetown, George Mason and George Washington. Again, Yow has responded, offering package deals for 2006-07 season tickets. Prices will not increase next season, and fans now can purchase discounted seats through the athletic department Web site.

"It takes a little bit longer here to catch the attention of the public," Yow said. "You have to make a pretty concentrated effort."

On the College Park campus yesterday, the team clearly had captured the minds of iPod playing, backpack toting students.

"Power to women," said freshman Stephani Buckland, 18, punching her fist into the air. "For so long no one here cared about women's basketball. All of a sudden, the women are the best. We do rock!"

"We're finally getting some recognition," she added.

Freshman Alisa Averbuch, 18, never considered herself a basketball fan. That all changed Monday.

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