By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009
One of the first things Brenda Frese noticed when she became the head coach of the Maryland women's basketball team in 2002 was how many of her ACC rivals had players -- key players -- from the D.C. area on their teams.
"From Day One when I took this job, my number one priority was keeping the best local talent here, playing at home," Frese said. "Obviously from a fan's perspective, they love to see the local hometown hero."
The two area schools that made the NCAA tournament field of 64 -- Maryland, the top seed in the South Region, and Virginia, the fifth seed in the East Region -- rely heavily on local players.
The Terrapins will start three All-Mets tomorrow in their first-round game against 16th-seeded Dartmouth: senior guard Marissa Coleman (St. John's), junior forward Dee Liles (Riverdale Baptist) and freshman center Lynetta Kizer (Potomac, Va.). The Cavaliers, who open with 12th-seeded Marist tonight, are led in scoring by junior guard Monica Wright (Forest Park) and senior forward Lyndra Littles (Carroll), and one of their top reserves is freshman guard Ariana Moorer (Hylton). Coleman, Wright and Littles were all named first-team all-ACC.
Sixteen other schools in the tournament have local players on their rosters. Sophomore Jasmine Thomas (Oakton) is the starting point guard for Duke, the No. 1 seed in the West Region. Junior forward Kaili McLaren (Good Counsel) averages 15.2 minutes off the bench for undefeated Connecticut, the top seed in the East. Two of the top three scorers for Pittsburgh, which earned its highest seed ever (fourth in the Midwest), are from Bowie.
"There are tons of great athletes in the area," Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan said. "I think the level that they compete on during their high school years and AAU years is very, very high. Look at players like Lyndra Littles and Marissa Coleman: Both came out of good AAU programs; both came out of high schools that competed against the top players in the area. It gives you a more prepared player for the college level in all aspects. There are good coaches in the area, and it's extremely competitive at all times."
That competitiveness is what Xenia Stewart brought to Pittsburgh in the fall of 2005. In the four seasons before she and fellow guard Shavonte Zellous suited up for the Panthers, Pittsburgh was 39-70 and hadn't finished higher than 10th in the Big East. Stewart, who was an All-Met at Riverdale Baptist, was used to winning, and she tried to bring that attitude to the Panthers.
In high school, "we traveled a lot, we traveled to different places, and we played different styles of the game," said Stewart, who is the team's second-leading scorer (11.1 points) behind Zellous (22.5 points). "Everything was a competition with us. I think that when we practiced at my high school, it was always a competition to get better. When I went to Pittsburgh, I was already a hard worker, because I was used to always competing to get better."
Stewart started immediately for the Panthers and was soon joined by other D.C. area players: center Selena Nwude (an All-Met from Eleanor Roosevelt who has been slowed by multiple knee injuries), guard Ashleigh Braxton (an All-Met from Forest Park who has since transferred to George Mason), and guard Taneisha Harrison (from St. John's). Coach Agnus Berenato credits that core group with helping turn around Pittsburgh's program.
Stewart and Zellous are the winningest class in school history (93-38). The Panthers have made three straight NCAA appearances (the only tournament berths in program history). The Panthers spent most of this season ranked in the top 25, and they handed Maryland its most lopsided loss in four seasons (86-57 on Dec. 7).
"When we started out, we had to look at kids that came up with great coaching, that had good work ethics, who would believe in us," said Berenato, whose team plays 13th-seeded Montana in Seattle today.
Targeting the D.C. area made sense because of Pittsburgh's proximity and because the compactness of the area meant that coaches could squeeze in visits to several schools in one day, Berenato said. Also, her top assistant has deep D.C. area ties: Jeff Williams played at Central High School, earned his undergraduate degree at Howard and worked as an assistant with the George Mason men and the Howard women.
"One reason why we recruit the area is they're very competitive kids. They're tough kids," Williams said. "They're very prepared, and again that goes back to the rich history in D.C. and Maryland of great players that have come through that area. I think they grow up watching basketball, especially on the men's side, the fact that Georgetown and Maryland are very good. Parents of young kids are out there playing, basketball is king, and it's just carried over to the women's side."
Frese has signed one area player for next season: Tianna Hawkins, a 6-foot-3 forward from Riverdale Baptist, the Post's top-ranked team this season.
"This is a hotbed for any and every program to come into," Frese said. "We just hope that we've built this thing up into such a power that it doesn't make any sense for kids to go look elsewhere. You have a number one seed and a top-three program in your back yard, and you can stay here close to home."