COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Brenda Frese’s team has averaged 29 victories the last 11 years and posted 65 wins just the past two seasons since moving to the Big Ten.
You could excuse opponents if they saw where the Terrapins graduated five seniors, and thought maybe this was the year Maryland came back to the pack a little. Sorry to disappoint. Even with six freshmen in tow – part of the No. 1 recruiting class in all of women’s basketball last year – the Terrapins are business as usual as practice opened this month.
“As coaches you look from a year ago to where we are now and you’re pinching yourself because we’re further ahead than we were last year,” said Frese. “And with six freshmen, that’s a great thing.”
That would be ahead of the 2015-16 team that won 31 games, made a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance and was ranked as high as No. 5 in the country.
An August trip to Italy, and the extra practice time the Terrapins got from the trip, has certainly helped, but it’s becoming clear there was a reason this particular recruiting class was so highly regarded. They can play the game, obviously know the game and here’s the real clincher: they’re all remarkably competitive.
“We’ve really been trying to get ahead for the freshmen so we can circle back,” Frese said. “This is my favorite part – putting the pieces together. I always say what it looks like in November isn’t what it’s going to look like in March if you’re a team that continues to improve.”
For those not paying attention, Frese’s Terrapins are one of those teams that continues to improve, going 31-4 last year despite some setbacks, some key injuries and running into a red-hot Final Four-bound Washington team in the NCAA Second Round.
Last year, though, isn’t really a topic with these Terrapins, so many new to the program. Still, familiar faces are point them in the right direction, according to the coach.
“Our veterans have done a phenomenal job coming back and leading the way. I can’t say enough for Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Bri Jones, Kristen Confroy, in their junior and senior year, just the leadership they display and what we value day in and day out. To see their growth, and just their voices coming together is really impressive.”
But the “X” factor for this particular Terps team is what the fabulous freshmen, especially out-of-the-box-ready-to-go point guard Destiny Slocum, have brought to the team’s workouts and practices.
“This is one of the most competitive groups we’ve ever had,” said Frese. “The rookies have come in with really high motors. They love to compete. They don’t back down. They just bring energy every day right now. Our practices were way more competitive this summer than we saw last year because we have depth this year and more speed.”
Slocum has all the tools and fills the team’s most pressing need.
“Destiny Slocum has been all that all that we thought she would be, and then some,” said Frese of the 5-7 dynamo from Idaho. “When you talk about the ultimate point guard, full package, pass-first but can score and just has tremendous feel, leadership skills, communication skills. Everything you’d every want in a point guard, she’s it.”
Slocum’s skills will meld right in, complementing All-America Walker-Kimbrough’s aggressive offensive game and creating opportunities on the wing for Confroy, who set a school record with 73 3-pointers last year, and Brionna Jones, who shot 66.5 percent and averaged 15.2 points last season.
And while Slocum has filled a primary need at point, she hasn’t been the only freshman making good things happen every practice.
“The surprise for me has been Kaila Charles,” added Frese of the 6-1 guard from Glendale. “I knew how talented she was, but her competitiveness to me has been phenomenal to watch. She takes great pride in wanting to win every sprint. She takes pride in her defense. She doesn’t take a bad shot. She’s really coachable and picks up things really fast.”
Charles fits in perfectly on a deeper, quicker and more athletic perimeter, including Baylor transfer Ieshia Small. The 6-0 redshirt junior got back into uniform for the first time on the Italian tour, and Frese thinks that was important for her after sitting out all last year. The 2013 Florida Gatorade Player of the Year can score, but along with Charles could lead an aggressive defense that could be a literal game-changer for this team.
“She can plug a lot of holes, play (point guard) through (power forward) for us,” said the coach. “We anticipate her playing guard. With our guard-play so strong, I think there will be times we play four guards a lot depending on match-ups and situations. We’re still sorting that out.”
The two freshmen from Georgia – 6-6 Jenna Staiti and 6-0 Sarah Myers – also impressed in early practices. Myers has that “high motor” and is competing at multiple positions. Staiti overcame some homesickness and has had worked hard on her conditioning, the biggest question mark in her game.
Their development is more important now with the list of injuries the Terrapins are working through. Junior forward Aja Ellison had reconstructive knee surgery and won’t be ready to return until December at the earliest. Junior Kiara Leslie, who worked into the rotation last year to the tune of 4.4 points and 3.0 rebounds, is coming off ankle surgery. In all honesty, both could be medical redshirt candidates.
Meanwhile, freshmen Stephanie Jones and Blair Watson hadn’t practiced, though the 6-0 Watson, a McDonald’s All-American, was just cleared to rejoin the team in mid-October, six months out from her torn labrum surgery. Jones, Brionna’s 6-2 younger sister, is coming off ACL surgery and was targeted for a late October or early November return to practices.
Sophomore Kiah Gillespie, the gem of last year’s recruiting class, had a great off-season, but was been held back some by a recent bout with pneumonia. Frese sees her working back in the mix quickly, and the early adversity doesn’t change much for the Terrapins long term.
“This team is kind of built where we can go in a lot of different directions,” Frese explained. “If we need to play big and have two posts or play athletic and have four guards, we can do it. Obviously we’re still young in the post. We have a senior with Bri Jones, but (Brianna) Fraser, Kiah, Jenna, Stephanie, those are freshmen and sophomores in terms of coming along.”
There are some more familiar faces rejoining Frese’s program, too. Anjale Barrett, a point guard in the program 2007-13, is coming back as Director of Player Personnel and Recruiting Operations, filling a full-time position vacated when Matthew Schiff left to work for Frese’s sister, Marsha, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Brenda Frese is also happy to have Sean Ehlbeck back as Director of Video. The former practice player (against the Terps) was director of recruiting operations for Frese prior to spending last season on former Maryland assistant Tina Langley’s staff at Rice.
Another former Terp, team manager Joe Glowacki graduated in May, and takes over as Director of Recruiting. Frese also lauded the work of the team’s Director of Basketball Performance, Lanie Deppe, who joined the program this summer. Frese credits Deppe, who moved to Maryland from Old Dominion, with a lot of the early practice success, too. “We’re in the best shape we’ve ever been in,” said Frese.
The Terrapins open up Nov. 13 against UMass Lowell, part of a three-game home-stand. Other early season highlights include the South Point Shootout in Las Vegas, where Maryland will play Arizona State and Washington State over Thanksgiving, and the Dec. 1 ACC/Big Ten Challenge contest at Louisville.
“I love the way the schedule is built,” said Frese. “It helps us get experience.”
And that may be all that’s missing for this talented team.