Amid Milestone Season, Women’s Basketball Player Reflects on Program’s Success
By Katie Benzan
Three women have led the Maryland women’s basketball program over its 50 years at the varsity level—Brenda Frese, Chris Weller and Dottie McKnight .
Katie Benzan is a graduate student and guard on the Terrapin women’s basketball team. She is pursuing a master’s in journalism in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Harvard University in Spring 2020.
When I committed to Maryland I was familiar with the incredible history of the Maryland women’s basketball program, but it wasn’t until I stepped foot into Xfinity Center that I truly appreciated its impact over the last 50 years.
From the NCAA championship hardwood court draped on the wall, to the countless trophies and banners adorned throughout the arena, the success of the program is awe-inspiring.
The remarkable level of success across 50 years is startling, as the Terps have won a national championship and 22 conference titles along the way. Forty-three of Maryland’s 49 varsity seasons have ended with a winning record.
But it wasn’t always rosy for the program in its earliest days.
The stories I learned as I wrote this story were incredible. Among my favorites in the program’s infancy were the team sneaking into intramural gyms for practice sessions, packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for road trips in old vans, and welcoming the assistance of a certain future Hall of Fame coach as a practice player.
Maryland women’s basketball has certainly come a long way over the course of those 50 years, but it was those humble beginnings that laid the foundation for a perennial national powerhouse.
Three women have led the Maryland program over its 50 years at the varsity level—Dottie McKnight (1971-75), Hall of Famer Chris Weller (1975-02) and Brenda Frese (2002-present).
Since the program was elevated to varsity sport status in 1971, it is evident that those special coaches established a culture of positive energy, fearless tenacity and a willingness to play for each other above all else.
“When I came to Maryland in 1964, they had no official teams in any sport for women, but they had interest groups that the recreation association sponsored,” said McKnight, who coached field hockey at Michigan State before coming to College Park.
“When basketball came around, the interesting thing is Chris [Weller] and Pat Griffin, who was the class behind her, were designated to be the basketball coaches,” McKnight recalled. “Then I came and they said that I would be the coach.”
Before the women’s programs were officially supported by the athletic department, the college of physical education and campus recreation gave the women opportunities to compete.
“Early on, the women’s recreation director, Ethel Kesler, probably paid for officials out of her own pocket because she cared that the women had that opportunity,” McKnight said.
“We got some support from the college of physical education. We drove our own cars [to games] and I drove with my heart in my mouth, hoping to keep everyone safe. Eventually, in 1971, the athletic department took over the women’s teams and began to offer some support and we had transportation.”
Maryland, a place that has long strived to create new and diverse opportunities, was ahead of the curve with providing opportunities for women.
“To the athletic department’s credit, they were ahead of the passing of Title IX, which was passed in 1972 and implemented several years after that,” said McKnight.
That forward-thinking in the athletic department started at the top with athletic director, Jim Kehoe.
That forward thinking led to the breaking of a major barrier in women’s sports, as Maryland hosted the first-ever televised women’s basketball game. Showcased in the legendary Cole Field House on Jan. 26, 1975, the Terrapins took on defending national champion, Immaculata College of Pennsylvania.
“The reason the televised game came about was Jim Kehoe,” McKnight said. “He said to the company (Mizlou Television Network) that wanted to have the contract to televise Maryland men’s basketball games, ‘I won’t sign that contract unless you will have a nationally televised women’s game.’ That was the genesis for that game. They wanted us to play the national champions. The way everyone pulled together for us for that game, it was really very inspiring.”
MAKING IT COUNT
Weller, who had worked under McKnight, took over as head coach in 1975 and stayed at the helm of the program for the next 27 years. She took the program to three Final Fours, won eight ACC titles and continued to push the envelope for women’s sports.
“I had a particular passion for extending the opportunity because I was a student-athlete at Maryland,” said Weller, who graduated from Maryland in 1966.
Women leaders in athletics such as former field hockey and women’s lacrosse head coach Sue Tyler, Kesler, McKnight and Weller worked hard to get practice times, uniforms and all of the opportunities given to the men’s teams.
“I just remember how wonderful the team was constantly with each other and with me,” Weller said. “I loved the atmosphere we had in women’s basketball in general because back in the day, women’s basketball was just getting started, so everyone had to stick together, even the opposing schools. We were all just trying to get opportunities for women. That camaraderie was significant amongst opponents, as well as teammates.”
One of the biggest supporters of the Terrapins’ women’s program was then-men’s head coach and Hall of Famer Lefty Driesell.
“Lefty Driesell was so special, because he watched us practice and took an interest,” Weller said. “Lefty watched our practices a couple times and he was so impressed with what we were doing. He used to get managers and practice players and he’d get teams together for us to go against because he wanted to help as much as he could. He is a wonderful man and he truly believed in equality for everyone—men and women.”
And when he couldn’t get enough practice players, Lefty himself would jump in to practice against the ladies.
“One day, our practice team didn’t show up and he goes, ‘What do you need?’” Weller recalled. “I said, ‘Their primary player is a big left-handed post player.’ And he goes, ‘Well, I’m a big left-hander.’ Lefty practiced with my team and served as the big left-hander.”
Through every hurdle faced and opportunity found, these pioneering leaders taught their young women about toughness on and off the court and to face every challenge head on.
MODERN-DAY CHAMPIONSHIP TRADITION
The championship tradition at Maryland has consistently attracted the top players and coaches, and it was a major reason for my interest in the program. Head coach Brenda Frese took the Maryland job for its winning history. She wanted to take part in a historically successful program.
“Under Coach Weller and Dottie McKnight, they had already had a ton of success, so I knew it could be rebuilt into another national power,” Frese said.
And that she did.
In a matter of four seasons, Coach Frese transformed a 10-18 program her first season into national champions in 2006. Her teams have also won 12 conference titles in 18 seasons.
One of Coach Frese’s hallmarks has always been to embrace the pressure that is accompanied by sustained success. In fact, she welcomes the target on her teams’ backs and loves being the hunted.
“Coach (Frese) has always had that energy and she still has it to this day, this kind of this underdog mentality,” said 2006 NCAA Champion Crystal Langhorne. “We’re going to outwork people and we’re going to have fun doing it. It’s just a good family atmosphere. She comes everyday with a good attitude and that sets the tone.”
Looking back on the past 50 years, it is clear the program is about more than just championships. It is a proud program that has fostered learning both on and off the court. Maryland women’s basketball produces not only great basketball players, but also great human beings.
From Coach McKnight to Coach Weller to Coach Frese, a common bond of work ethic, toughness and discipline has been instilled in the program that will never be broken.
And I am proud to be a part of it.
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