COLLEGE PARK — Brenda Frese will be the first to tell you she sometimes trampled through life, so intent on the goals ahead that she didn't necessarily worry about the bruised feelings left in her wake.
If she wanted something, she took it, a brash style she used to transform the Maryland women's basketball program from losers to national champs in a mere four years. She was 35 then and couldn't have imagined she would need eight years to steer the Terps back to the Final Four.
The 43-year-old who will coach Maryland on the biggest stage in her sport Sunday night is a different character, one shaped by harder things than winning games.
There was professional disappointment as a succession of ultra-talented Maryland teams fell a few steps short of their promise. But even that paled in comparison to the phone call Frese took from her husband in 2010. "Leukemia," he said, delivering the unfathomable diagnosis for one of their twin sons.
Frese can smile about her journey now, even laugh at the way players describe her as "motherly," an adjective few would have used during her first Final Four run in 2006, when the team won the national championship.
Her team is rolling behind Alyssa Thomas, arguably the best player she's ever coached. The medical prognosis for her 6-year-old son Tyler is excellent. He and his brother Markus lead merry lives, shooting hoops with mom's players, who treat them like little siblings.
But make no mistake — Frese wasn't always sure the road would wind back to this place. And for that reason, she's delighting in every moment.
"I just know this one, I appreciate so much more," she says. "The first time you go through it, you think you're getting back, just like that. But you realize, when you haven't been since '06, how hard it is."
Those close to her also see a woman who has developed a fuller appreciation of life.
"I think her perspective is way different now," says her husband, Mark Thomas. "She's much more in the present moment, just enjoying everything. She stopped racing so much."
Debbie Yow, the former Maryland athletic director who hired Frese, has spent her life among great basketball coaches. She sees in Frese the blend of a young coach's drive and a tested teacher's emotional maturity.
"She's in her prime right now," says Yow, currently the athletic director at North Carolina State.
In Sunday's national semifinals, Frese's Terps (28-6) will take on Notre Dame (36-0), which is hampered by a season-ending injury to its leader, Natalie Achonwa. Maryland nearly beat the Irish in January, and the players seem confident they can pull an upset.
If the Terps do it, they'll only augment the resume of their coach, who has always thrived on upsetting the establishment.
Frese grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of six siblings in a close-knit family that shot baskets on the driveway hoop installed by her father, Bill. Her husband says she learned self-reliance early because, with so many kids around, no one could wait to be coddled.
Certainly, Frese's confidence emerged long before she was leading teams to the Final Four. She was the kind of kid who stood before a high school pep rally and predicted a playoff victory over the best team in the state (yes, her team won). She was the kind of young woman who drove to the Final Four as a college senior and petitioned older coaches for an assistant job. She took a gig at Kent State without even seeing the campus.
"That's the essence of who Brenda is," her husband says. "She's fearless."
She waitressed at a Little Caesars pizza shop to supplement her meager income. Frese thrived as an assistant at Kent State and Iowa State, then rapidly turned around programs at Ball State and Minnesota in her first two shots at head coaching.
When she pursued Frese in 2002, Yow saw a born overachiever who would throw a jolt into a Maryland program that hadn't advanced past the first round of the NCAA tornament in nine years and was coming off a losing season. The young coach did just that, signing a string of top recruits and taking the Terps to the NCAA tournament in her second season. They've only missed the tournament twice in her 12 years in College Park.