Victorious Terps draw a crowd

Underdog win makes dreams of glory real

April 06, 2006|By NICOLE FULLER AND MILTON KENT | NICOLE FULLER AND MILTON KENT,SUN REPORTERS

COLLEGE PARK -- Yesterday was a day for celebration on the University of Maryland campus - of a historic national championship, of the plucky team that brought it home and of the potential for more glory to come.

One day after the Terrapins won the school's first NCAA women's basketball championship, coach Brenda Frese and her players were cheered at a jam-packed rally in the school's amphitheater outside the Adele H. Stamp Student Union.

Last week, a good-luck rally on campus drew fewer than 300. But after the Terps won the title Tuesday night, students poured out onto U.S. 1 to celebrate in the fashion of a big men's victory. Now, the question is: Does this success propel women's basketball into the sporting mainstream at Maryland?

Larry Leckonby, senior associate athletic director for business and finance at Maryland, said the school is already fielding calls from fans eager to snatch up season tickets for the women's team.

"If phone calls and e-mails are any indication, the girls and the staff have made a lot of fans over the last five weeks," he said.

At yesterday's rally, amid chants of "Brenda, Brenda!" signs proclaiming "Terp women are hot!" and the almost constant clicking of cell-phone cameras, University President C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr. recapped the story of their rise: Ohio State almost scooped up Frese for itself. The team had entered the NCAA tournament as a long shot. Even with 28 victories in the regular season, the Terps were awarded only a No. 2 tournament seed.

All that doubt just seemed to make the win even sweeter. "This team has arrived," Frese declared, flanked by her players, smiling in their championship T-shirts.

Maryland won the title by coming back from a 13-point deficit, tying the game on a three-point shot with 6.1 seconds left and prevailing in overtime against highly favored Duke, 78-75.

Mote predicted more championships to come: "This is, fans, the beginning of a dynasty in women's athletics."

Shortly after her team's victory, Frese tried to temper some of those expectations.

"You hope that we're building a dynasty here," she said Tuesday night in Boston, site of the NCAA final. "But each and every season defines its own, the players define it with their character and really how they come together, and so you really have to take each team as its own.

"I don't think you can put any added pressures and expectations. I don't even want to look ahead to next year because I want to enjoy this year."

Frese certainly could revel in her own accomplishments. She came to Maryland four years ago and turned around a team that finished 10-18 in her first season. Leckonby said attendance at the women's games had doubled since Frese's arrival. This season, an average of 5,000 fans attended games, he said.

If yesterday's rally was any indication, that number should continue to rise. The seeds of change were already in the air.

"Here she comes! Here she comes!" shouted Jeri Rocks, a Calvert County mother of daughters Kelsie, 9, and Heather, 12. Rocks was referring to Kristi Toliver, who pushed the game into overtime by making that three-pointer.

Matthew Daniels, 12, with his twin sister, Jennifer, who rode from Calvert with Rocks and her kids, scurried forward for Toliver to autograph his T-shirt.

"She's an amazing player," Matthew said, after scoring the signature.

Maryland freshmen Veronica Locke of Lanham and Linda Machekou of Silver Spring - fans all along, they said - had their own star player in mind: Marissa Coleman.

"We feel like proud parents," Locke said. "Everybody told her they weren't going to make it."

And it almost seemed that way, as the team was trailing Duke for most of the game.

"We said a little prayer, and they came back," Locke said.

Sophomores Monica Huerta, 19, and Sarah Abedi, 19, both of Laurel, snapped pictures holding a newspaper with a huge picture of the team, long after the rally had ended. They said the team had achieved something beyond its championship - generating male interest in women's sports.

"The best feeling was seeing people actually cared that it was the women's team," Abedi said. "So many guys, like at [Tuesday night's] party and on Route 1, when they were watching that game and seeing how they played, possibly even better than the boys."

Whether or not they continue to experience more success than the Maryland men's team, the Terps women, who finished 34-4, appear well-equipped for another title run.

The Terps' top eight players will return, joined by a potentially impressive recruiting class. Maryland will start next season with two things it has never had before, a national championship banner and a world of expectations.

Two ESPN analysts, Kara Lawson and Stacey Dales-Schuman, immediately declared Maryland to be the preseason No. 1 team for 2006-2007, a sentiment that is likely to grow during the summer.

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