Once barely relevant, UM women now inspire revelry from students

The Kickoff

April 06, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

This is, by no means, an endorsement of post-game rioting, regardless of the fact that it apparently is as much of a tradition in College Park as rubbing Testudo's nose. Still -- setting fires and overturning vehicles after a women's basketball game, championship or not?

Never thought I'd see the day.

This is what women's basketball at Maryland used to be, back when I was a young student journalist there in the early 1980s: the Terps women playing a doubleheader at Cole Field House with the sometimes-unranked men, with the women playing the early game.

The Terps, often in the top five of the national rankings, facing another big-time opponent at home, with a couple of hundred fans in the stands and one writer from the student paper at courtside.

Chris Weller, one of the game's pioneer coaches, attending the weekly joint basketball news conference and discussing her team, to the sound and sight of writers and broadcasters munching on pizza and chatting about what Lefty Driesell might say when he took the podium.

And the women's team returning to campus from an NCAA tournament run (for example, the Final Four) and melding back into the student population in near-total anonymity.

That was then, when the team was great, light-years ahead of all but a handful of other programs, but was ignored by all but the true zealots. A decade later, the next era in Maryland women's basketball history evolved: The sport exploded and pushed its way onto the national stage, but the Terps sank into oblivion.

Forget that nobody-believed-we-could angle being pitched today. Realistically, with that history, why should anyone have envisioned this?

Campus security might have anticipated students getting stupid on game night, but until the first bonfire was lit Tuesday night, it was joked about everywhere else. They gonna be flipping cars and smashing windows when the women win, too? Sure, they will.

As for the welcome-home celebration yesterday on campus, it wasn't as much a surprise as it was an acknowledgement that this is a lot closer to what Juan Dixon and Co. accomplished four years ago, than to what, say, the men's soccer and field hockey teams did.

Every last aspect of it seemed so improbable a few years ago. Maryland fell off the radar right when women's college ball appeared on it. To think about the great players of Weller's 27-year tenure is to think back more than a decade. You can't find footage of the exploits of the early greats, from the 1970s and '80s, because back then, women's basketball was on TV less than cheerleading competitions are today.

If you do see the games from then, it's like watching black-and-white film of the NBA of Bob Cousy's era. The quantum leap in athleticism, skill and depth of the talent pool in the past 20 years or so, is astonishing. Debate the legitimacy of the dunks Tennessee's Candace Parker pulled off earlier in the tournament if you like. But the play, from beginning to end, that Kristi Toliver made to send the final into overtime was phenomenal by any standards, and should silence at least a few more doubts about how good the sport is.

Both Toliver and Parker are freshmen, by the way. There's more of this to come.

That's just more proof that the world Maryland rules today barely resembles the one it ruled years ago. While its program was in suspended animation, the Tennessees and Connecticuts took over. Those two programs, their Hall of Fame coaches and their assembly line of All-America players is why women's ball is as much a part of the scene as it is.

Between 1995 and 2004, Tennessee and UConn won eight of the 10 NCAA titles, and they played each other in the final four times -- all with a big splash on ESPN and other national media. Meanwhile, the rest of the ACC -- which had barely existed outside of Maryland at one time -- went past it at warp speed. Much-hated Duke, of all schools, became the Final Four regular.

Maryland had become a relic, about as relevant to the game as Immaculata and Delta State, the stalwarts of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women era. When Brenda Frese led the Terps to an NCAA tournament win in '04, it was their first in 12 years; they had missed the field eight times in that span. None of the players in Tuesday's game could possibly have had any memory of Maryland being an elite program.

Now Maryland not only has caught up, but it has also passed the titans of the game. It now is a titan of the game, a destination for the best, a threat to the old order, a target of those trying to either climb to its level or pull it back down. It's back where it used to be.

It even inspires civic unrest on Route 1. Most of all, when the head coach speaks, everyone swallows their pizza and listens.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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