Harper set to give Terps her best shot

Women's basketball: By adding top recruits such as Laura Harper, coach Brenda Frese has the Terps moving in the right direction.

November 18, 2003|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

In some ways, Philadelphia-area prep basketball star Laura Harper is similar to the Maryland women's basketball program she signed with recently.

Despite the genes of a father who played college basketball and the rich history that comes with two Final Four appearances, both Harper and the Maryland women's program have emerged as late bloomers.

The 6-foot-4 power forward seems a typical elite player, ranked as high as eighth among high school seniors after averaging 21 points a game at Cheltenham High School in Wyncote, Pa., last season.

In the same vein, Maryland is behaving like an elite program, with coach Brenda Frese beating national power Connecticut to Harper and to fellow Philadelphia-area recruit Crystal Langhorne, who is ranked as high as third nationally. Langhorne averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds for Willingboro High School in New Jersey.

Ellicott City's Wanisha Smith's choice of Duke and the loss of national Player of the Year Candace Parker to Tennessee were the only disappointments for Maryland, which also added two top-40 players, center Jade Perry of Greenville, Ky., and guard Ashleigh Newman of Shelbyville, Tenn., to its class.

"Well, there's no question that Tennessee is No. 1. After that, LSU is No. 2, and Maryland is a clear-cut No. 3," said Joe Smith of Women's Basketball News Service.

Until recently, though, Harper and the Terps could only hope to be described as top-notch. For the first three years of high school, she was a gangly prospect with more promise than polish.

It didn't help that she didn't play on the top team offered by her Amateur Athletic Union club, the Philadelphia Belles. Atlantic 10 schools George Washington and St. Joseph's were her main suitors before last winter, when she heard from Maryland.

And while the Terps' program had plenty to offer - a new arena, Atlantic Coast Conference affiliation, great location, echoes of former greatness - a decade of inattention had taken its toll. The program has a .428 winning percentage over the past five years.

"People were happy that Maryland was a sleeping giant," said Mike Flynn, who publishes a recruiting newsletter, Blue Star Report, and runs the Belles teams that included Harper and Langhorne. "Maryland was off the recruiting circles for so long that it was forgotten."

For Harper, obscurity ended in June in Colorado Springs, Colo., at the U.S. Youth Development Festival, a USA Basketball-sponsored event that draws the best high school players.

By the end of the camp, she had averaged 8.4 rebounds in 18.8 minutes in five games, including a 13-point, 16-rebound performance in the championship game.

"She had size, but her coordination and skills hadn't caught up with her yet," said Frese, comparing the Harper she saw at the beginning of last season to the one people saw in June. "Now she's become a more complete player," one who catches passes and has a greater ability to score, in addition to being a rebounder and defender who runs well, fitting in with the current emphasis on swiftness in Maryland's system.

Harper had an inkling that a few more schools would pay attention and noticed that Maryland seemed even more attentive after the camp.

Still, that didn't prepare her for June 21, the day when colleges can start phoning recruits. The past three national champions - Connecticut, Notre Dame and Purdue - called, and so did roughly 70 others.

"I had to unplug my phone," she said.

The work of Frese and her staff last year should have alerted opponents. That's when they signed two All-America guards, Kalika France of nearby Forestville and Shay Doron of Great Neck, N.Y., just seven months after Frese arrived from Minnesota.

And for recruits in the 2004 class, an exceptionally deep talent pool, the signing of Doron and France mattered.

"You could tell that they were doing something right and it's going to be something special when they bring in two All-Americans in their first year," Langhorne said.

The glow was great enough to put Maryland on the short list of Parker, a 6-foot-2 player from Naperville, Ill., dubbed "the female LeBron" because of her ability to leap and play all five positions. All for a program that went 10-18 in Frese's initial campaign last season.

"What separated us [from other programs] was that we invested the time, we started on it on the first day that we took the job," Frese said. "It's a new name, one that no one was expecting. We were able to creep up on them, just like you can as a team."

"It's very impressive," said coach Gail Goestenkors of Duke, whose team has won 43 straight ACC games. "[Frese] has a great passion for the game and it comes off to the recruits and her current players. I don't think anyone's working as hard as her and her staff."

Among Frese and her assistants -Jeff Walz, Erica Floyd and Joanna Bernabei - none is over the age of 33. It's a fact that lends itself to clichM-i, with descriptions such as "hungry," "energetic," "enthusiastic" and "an ability to relate to kids".

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