Past Terps cleared path for present team's run

Ncaa Women

Ncaa Women's Final

April 04, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Boston -- The past will be watching tonight from Section 11.

Occasionally, fans will still turn to her. "Coach," they'll say to Chris Weller. "Why can't we get the ball into the low post?"

Because she's still the superstitious sort, Weller will be wearing the same red jacket she wore Sunday night, when the Maryland women's basketball team beat North Carolina and earned its way into the NCAA tournament national championship game against Duke.

Tonight's game is the biggest the state of Maryland has been involved in since the Terrapins won the men's championship in 2002.

The road to the Final Four for this women's team has been long and deceptively easy. Terps coach Brenda Frese barreled through yellow lights and ignored the posted speed limits. The fourth-year coach has brought the Terps to national prominence in near-record time, but she has followed a trail blazed nearly three decades ago by Weller.

"This is where Maryland belongs," Weller said yesterday from her hotel room in Boston. "We should always be a leader."

Weller retired after the 2001-02 season and 27 seasons coaching the Terps. She belongs in the stands tonight. With a nation of women's hoops fans abuzz over the Terps' quick climb to the top, it's important to remember Weller. She's an important bridge to an era preserved only in record books and foggy memories.

"People seem to forget that we've been in the championship game before," Weller says. And technically, she's right. The Weller-coached Terps reached the final in 1978, when the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women ran a 32-team tournament. The NCAA took over the tournament in 1982, instantly boosting the event's relevance and eventually doubling the field to 64.

It's a different game today. Weller's teams earned eight conference titles, but they didn't win a single NCAA tournament game in her final 10 years. Coming off a 13-17 season in 2001-02, it was time for a change.

Debbie Yow, a former college basketball player and coach, made one of her best decisions in 11 years as the school's athletic director. She nabbed Frese, a coach with the confidence and enthusiasm to bring the Terps' program back to national prominence.

"She's an overachiever," Yow says. "And I gravitate toward overachievers."

For years, Weller's was the most important name associated with the Terps' program. Frese managed to awaken a tired team in record time. She brought in new players, raised expectations and regarded her team as a family.

"Everybody is allowed. Everyone is a part of what's going on here," says Matt Charvat, the team's trainer. "She's the kind of person who will thank you for those little things that other coaches don't feel like they should thank you for."

Around family, the atmosphere is often light. In Frese's first year, she called Charvat into her office. Some North Carolina State fans had complained that the trainer was verbally abusive. Frese was shaking a lengthy e-mail in her hand and explained that the administration was upset, that his behavior couldn't be tolerated and he'd have to be reassigned.

"She let me get out the door, and I was so hot," he says, "and then she runs up behind me laughing, `I'm just messing with you!'"

Ask any of the Terps why they spurned the elite basketball schools, and you don't hear about the fancy Comcast Center or Maryland's academic offerings or the chance to compete in a tough conference. "Coach B," they each say.

That's why when competing coaches began whispering about illegal recruiting practices earlier this season, the Terps' young players took the rumors as an insult. (The NCAA interviewed Maryland players, though hasn't launched a formal investigation.) Other coaches just couldn't understand why Frese was attracting blue-chip talent to a team that hadn't won an ACC title since 1988-89.

"If you ask any one [of us] about it, it's because we wanted to do something new," says freshman Kristi Toliver.

The young players arrived on campus and as they dreamed about the future, they kept hearing about the past - about Vicky Bullett leading the team to the Final Four nearly 20 years ago and Tara Heiss doing it in the AIAW tournament a decade before that.

"We wanted to go back to when we were winning, when the gym used to be packed," says sophomore Crystal Langhorne. "We're really trying to bring Maryland basketball back to that point."

Weller, 61, still lives in Silver Spring. She makes it to a couple of games each season and says this year's squad has been especially fun to follow.

"I'm so impressed with this team. They remind me a bit of our 1988-89 team, which you remember went to the Final Four," she says. "They seem to be so together and supportive of each other."

In her coaching days, Weller was noted as much for winning as she was for some of her quirks. She'd tap her head and then tap the court for good luck. She made certain that one of her players was assigned the No. 12 jersey each year. And she'd wait until exactly 1:12 was remaining on the pre-game clock before calling her team to the bench, barking "Let's go Maryland!"

Habits don't die, and now's not the time to jinx the Terps. "Just to be safe, I'll be wearing my red jacket again," she says.

With a young team and a young coach, the future looks bright for the Terps. But so is their past. Tonight, they'll both be under the same roof at TD Banknorth Garden, for 40 minutes, the only place that matters in the basketball universe.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

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