Expectations a burden for young Terps

March 25, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Today was supposed to be a pit stop. The Maryland women's basketball team was supposed to stop over in Dayton, Ohio, take care of some quick business and continue on to Cleveland, site of this year's Final Four.

Instead, gym bags are packed, players have escaped to spring break with family and friends, and coaches are left with ample time to overanalyze every twist and turn of a long season. The tournament continues without the defending champions, and the hand-wringing that followed the Terps' surprising second-round loss to Mississippi persists.

The foreshadowing was there all along. While the hints -- from the big losses in big games to inconsistent play by top performers -- should've lessened the shock, we also lost sight of just how difficult it is to defend a title and completely ignored what goes on in the head of a young competitor.

Coach Brenda Frese has been thinking about this all season. She knew coming in that the goal would remain the same, and everything leading up to that goal would be strikingly different.

"When you reflect on the season, it was all new territory for everyone, coaches included," Frese says. "There isn't a manual ... on how to come back from a national title when you have most of your players returning.

"How do you top last year after you already won a title? The only way is by winning another one. Positively and negatively, there are expectations now that we have for our program. And our fans do, too. That's a great thing, but when those expectations aren't fulfilled, it's a great disappointment."

Usually, at the college level, a championship team hoists a trophy and then has to replace some parts. Maryland was unique in that it was the same basic team returning for a second go-round, trying to find the same results despite different circumstances.

Oddly, the same reason the Terps went so far last year is the exact reason they failed so early this March: youth. They were aided by unfamiliarity, eagerness and a sense of invincibility in their championship run. This time, they were cautious, clumsy and seemed to be aware at all times that they played with a target on their backs.

"You start pressing so hard," Frese said. "You want to emulate how you performed and felt a year ago. When the same results aren't happening, it's like you're searching and searching, and you just can't find it. It's tough."

Frese hasn't watched tape of the Ole Miss loss. "A horror flick," she called it. While she'll put off the inevitable viewing, a part of her must know what she'll see. It's the same thing she witnessed in bits and pieces all season. And the problems had nothing to do with talent.

The Terps started the season and ended it with all the right parts in place. But mentally, they didn't know how to respond to their championship. It's not that they stepped on the court with a sense of entitlement. On the contrary, they pushed themselves too hard to repeat their finest hour every single hour on the hour. Maryland was hardly a dominating championship team and yet the following year, the Terps expected to be just that.

"I don't think you can really truly understand what it's like until you're going through it," Frese says. "You can say to your team of 18-22 year olds, `This is what will happen,' and `This is what success means,' but you don't understand it until you're in the middle of it. That the was hardest thing to watch as a coach was for them to go through it."

Frese points out that last season, the Terps played in six overtime games. They embraced them, and they enjoyed them. But this season, such a win wasn't acceptable. "We shied away," she says, "and feared having those expectations on our shoulders. Our youth showed."

Down the stretch, we witnessed an identity crisis, players and coaches reaching deep into the desperation well. Laura Harper lacking self-confidence. Kristi Toliver unsure of her role. And even Frese, waiting until the first game of the tournament to make the most jarring roster shuffle of the season.

Frese was aware of her players' fragile psyches and in trying to protect them, she might have done more damage. Removing Toliver from the starting lineup planted seeds of self-doubt at a time when the Terps could have instead used some reassurance.

Frese says she doesn't regret the move, but acknowledges that she grew as much as her players in the past few months. Taking the court with the label of a champion is a thrill. And a burden. It's a feat you never shake, and once you reach the top, everyone you carried there expects to stay.

"That's what makes the coaching profession cruel at times and yet so wonderful," she said. "It's hard to understand it until you're in the maze. My husband and I were just talking about this and I guess this is what it felt like for every coach in the country but us last year. Now you truly feel what the other teams and programs went through. We'll probably appreciate even more how difficult it was to go through the tournament and win it all."

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