By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 12:27 AM
For Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese, this season promises to be unlike any other, and it has little to do with her calling the shots on a team that has no seniors. While that oddity, by Frese's recollection, may be unprecedented in her coaching career, circumstances off the court demand her attention first because they concern the health of her 2-year-old son, Tyler Thomas, who has leukemia.
That diagnosis came in early October during an examination at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where Tyler remained for a week immediately following the unsettling news. Tyler, the younger of fraternal twins, now requires a trip to Johns Hopkins once a week for treatment, which includes chemotherapy that Frese said at times causes tingling in her son's hands as well as other discomfort associated with such procedures.
Tyler is expected to receive treatment for roughly three years, but thanks to early detection by the family's pediatrician, Frese was able to say on ACC media day after revealing her son's condition that "it's a very curable battle that he will win."
So basketball doesn't seem so hard these days, even though Frese is pinning the Terrapins' aspirations in large part on the most youthful bunch of her college coaching life. Frese welcomes the challenge of directing this group, if only in practice so far, because of what she called the boundless potential linked to Maryland's highly touted recruiting class of five freshmen, all of whom have received national acclaim. Then there is the emotional outlet it provides.
"It's a great release to have practice. I will say that," said Frese, who doesn't anticipate missing games this season. "I think like anyone would tell you [having a child with cancer] changes your life, your perspective. It opens your heart. I feel like probably my heart is a lot more wide open just in terms of how you feel on a day-to-day basis."
That doesn't mean Frese is about to yield when it comes to extracting the most from her players. During a full-court drill the other day at Comcast Center, Frese reprimanded some of her charges for a lack of defensive communication, then had them do push-ups as punishment.
Physical fitness has been among the major points of emphasis - many returning players showed up noticeably leaner thanks to hours of offseason conditioning - because this incarnation of the Terrapins has every intention of playing at a brisk pace. Frese's deepest team since arriving in College Park affords her that freedom.
The plan this season is to substitute liberally, and that means plenty of court time for the newest additions, such as guard Laurin Mincy, forward Alyssa Thomas and center Alicia DeVaughn. In an exhibition game against the University of the District of Columbia on Sunday, Frese used five freshmen at the same time. Expect to see more of the same when the games count.
"They're playing beyond their years," Frese said of the class, which also includes guard Natasha Cloud and forward Whitney Bays. "Very poised. High IQ. I mean really picking things up quickly. I think probably the greatest thing about them is they just have a tremendous feel for the game."
Mincy was named a McDonald's all-American as a senior and was the first freshman in New Jersey prep basketball history to be named first-team all-state. DeVaughn also was a McDonald's all-American and three-time first-team all-state in Florida. Thomas was a Parade first-team all-American and the Pennsylvania AAAA high school player of the year.
Each freshman recruit played in a state championship game and flourished in a winning environment. That has helped energize a team that last season failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since Frese's first season at Maryland in 2002-03.
"Obviously it's a lot of pressure," Mincy said of Frese entrusting the freshmen with substantial responsibility. "I think the coaching staff as well as our teammates are going to have us prepared for all the challenges we're going to face this season."
That means leaning heavily on the likes of junior center Lynetta Kizer, who was ACC rookie of the year following the 2008-09 season, and forward Diandra Tchatchouang, named to the ACC all-freshman team last season after starting every game.
Kizer, for one, has been a vocal leader during practice, which is no surprise considering she made it a point to reach out to the incoming freshmen even before they arrived on campus.
"We definitely still have a young team," said Kizer, who played high school basketball at Potomac (Va.), "but one thing about everybody is they're so hungry, and I think you can see that by how they look. They look great. Since the spring, we contacted the freshmen and [said]: 'This is what we envision. This is where want to go. We want to get another one of them.' "
Kizer was pointing to the NCAA championship banner hanging in the rafters of Comcast Center.
Maryland won its first and only NCAA title in women's basketball in 2006, and the mission since has been to revisit that high point in program history. The current combination of impact freshmen and other skilled non-seniors may be just the group that enables the Terrapins to achieve that goal.
"Unlimited. Really high," Frese said of her team's ceiling. "And I think that's what's so fun. We're just scratching the surface right now, but you can just see. I mean we're doing some things already with this team that we've never done here just because of our length and our IQ and conditioning, which makes it really exciting from a coach's end to really have some different wrinkles that we've never been able to put in before."