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Maryland’s Brenda Frese has been coaching with a heavy heart as her dad battles cancer

Maryland Coach Brenda Frese hugs her father, Bill, in the stands after winning the Big Ten tournament. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Bill and Donna Frese have been married for 62 years, and he figured out a way to dupe his wife a long time ago. Wear the sneakers, but keep on the work pants. Hide the basketball in a bag, and call the piano teacher with an excuse. It was the perfect crime committed by a father and three of his daughters.

Marsha Frese, sister of Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda, remembers talking their dad — he was the “softy” — into taking them to the gym instead. Bill had gotten the keys to the grade-school facility at some point, and the girls would much rather practice jump shots than scores of Chopin.

“My mom wanted us to be well-rounded young women,” said Marsha, an assistant coach at San Diego State. “We didn’t have any interest in that.

My mom didn’t find out for a long time, and she eventually just kind of resigned herself to, ‘Well at least they’re doing something.’ We still all kind of regret that we didn’t go further in piano, but it was probably the right choice for what we all ended up doing.”

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What Brenda Frese is doing is taking the Terrapins to the Sweet 16 for the 14th time in school history and the first time since 2017. She became the program’s all-time winningest coach this season and has the second-seeded Terps ready to face No. 6 Texas at 9 p.m. Sunday. Frese has put together the No. 1 offense in the nation, which is poised to break program records and has averaged wins by 44.5 points in the opening two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

ESPN’s national coach of the year has done all of this with a heavy heart as Bill, 89, has battled against prostate cancer that has progressively worsened in recent months. Brenda hasn’t missed a beat on the court, but the emotions have peeked out now and again when asked to reflect on this extraordinary season with a team that is a national championship contender.

After winning the Big Ten tournament with Bill and Donna in the front row, Brenda cut down the nets and headed into the stands to drape the braided nylon around Bill’s neck as the tears flowed.

The moment was made even more special because all six siblings were in the building. Brother Jeff was a last-minute surprise only Brenda knew about, and he walked into the building shortly after tip-off of the semifinal win over Northwestern. He surprised the other siblings several rows up from their parents, and they forced him to hide and wait for a timeout to say hello to Bill and Donna.

The tournament was the first time all six siblings and their parents had been together in about a year and a half.

He came and tapped us on the shoulder, and I about fell over,” Donna said. “And we didn’t know Marsha was coming out there, either. When she came in, that was another surprise.

“It was great having everybody together; couldn’t be more grateful. Don’t happen too often when you’ve got six of them.”

Brenda has created a sense of family in Maryland’s program that extends to players and staff. Her husband and twin boys were constantly around before the coronavirus pandemic forced social distancing. Several players credited that familial feeling as heavily influencing their decision to sign with the Terps. Marsha called it an offshoot of how they were raised by Bill and Donna.

So it made complete sense when, after winning the tournament, the entire team turned and walked to the sideline, waving to the Freses in the front row.

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“It just made me cry — let’s put it that way,” Donna said about the moment with the net. “She is very family-oriented. I think she calls her dad about every day. Those things mean a lot.”

This isn’t the first time the Frese family has had to manage a cancer scare, and television analyst and Maryland alumnus Christy Winters-Scott believes that experience gave Brenda more perspective on life. Her son Tyler was diagnosed with childhood leukemia in 2010 and underwent his final round of chemotherapy in 2013.

Winters-Scott explained that Brenda has the ability to coach and compete as hard as anyone in the country but still understands there’s a lot going on in the world beyond basketball. All of that came to a head after winning the conference tournament.

“It speaks volumes to who she is as a woman and a mother and a daughter,” Winters-Scott said. “She showed strength through her tears in that moment. There were two sides to that moment: She was thrilled for the team and the staff, but she was so sad that her dad is not doing so well. In that moment, those two emotions collided, and you just have to appreciate that she’s a human being, number one. She’s going through things that you may not know.”

Brenda didn’t have to share the news about her father, redshirt sophomore Mimi Collins explained. People compartmentalize things all the time, but the fact that she disclosed the news to the team was another example of the depth of her relationship with the players.

Bill and Donna were on the road to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., this week, hours before Maryland set a program record for the NCAA tournament with a 53-point first-round win over Mount St. Mary’s. His health has worsened, and the family holds out hope that the world-renowned facility can help.

The other hope is that the Terrapins can advance to the Final Four to set up another possible family reunion. Brenda has tried to make this year as special as possible for Bill, including organizing a birthday card campaign that netted 400 and counting. The Freses have a video call twice a week, and the text thread is extensive with Donna starting to send messages at 6 a.m. from Iowa.

Everyone still laughs at Bill’s infamous piano bait-and-switch. The parents simply wanted to keep the kids busy and out of trouble, and basketball developed into the sport of choice for the three youngest girls. Jeff was a baseball player, so Bill set up batting cages and shagged balls for years.

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The union that almost wasn’t — Bill got lost trying to pick Donna up for their first date — ultimately set the foundation for the person Brenda would become. Now she is four wins from bringing a second national championship to Maryland.

“I think this year, more than really any year she’s ever had, she needs that team more than they need her, if that makes sense,” Marsha said. “My dad’s a fighter; as long as there’s something to always fight for, which is his family, he’s going to keep fighting.

We’ve always taken our cues from him. My dad’s going to keep fighting.”

So will Brenda and the Terrapins, in his honor.

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