As Gonzaga women’s basketball coach Lisa Fortier takes her first steps into the limelight this weekend, she’ll join three others who’ve lived there for decades.
Brenda Frese of Maryland, Joanne McCallie of Duke and Holly Warlick of Tennessee have been there, done that since Fortier was in grade school.
They’re as accomplished as the programs they lead, bright stars in the constellation of women’s basketball. This weekend at the Spokane Regional of the NCAA Tournament, they’ll try to repeat their feats of the past and get back to the Final Four.
Only one will succeed, perhaps Fortier herself. Win or lose, lessons will be learned.
“We are always watching good programs. We are students of the game,” said Fortier, who has exceeded expectations in her first year taking over for Kelly Graves.
“If we see a set we like or a style we like, we are always paying attention for anything that we think would improve our team. You always have an eye toward what we can improve,” Fortier said.
If that’s the case, Fortier will get an eyeful this weekend by watching her rivals. Each has brought a different method to March Madness, with winning results:
The rising star
Brenda Frese saw only opportunity when President Barack Obama went public last week with his women’s bracket. It showed her top-seeded Maryland team losing to Princeton in their second-round game.
Her pregame pep talk on Monday was a classic Frese frame, an epic, no-confidence vote on the president’s picks. She told her team, “You let your play tonight do the talking and you show them what Maryland basketball is all about.”
The players cheered. By the end of the night, Maryland won the game 85-70, and Frese is deep in the postseason – again.
Since she took over the program in 2005, the Terrapins have enjoyed 10 straight 20-win seasons and as many trips to the NCAA Tournament.
They reached the summit in 2006, winning the NCAA Tournament after a 78-75 win over the same Duke program they’ll face Saturday afternoon at the Arena.
Frese was only 35 at the time, two years older than Fortier is now. Three years earlier, she was the Associated Press National Coach of the Year after a one-year turnaround at Minnesota that saw the Gophers go from 8-20 to 22-8.
Dynamic, overachieving and brimming with enthusiasm, the 44-year-old Frese is one of the game’s rising stars. She’s led the Terrapins to four Final Four appearances, including last year.
This season, Maryland’s first in the Big Ten, they went 30-2 to win the conference title and earned the top seed in the Spokane Regional.
Maryland enters the NCAA tournament on a school-record, 24-game winning streak, ranking sixth in the nation with 80.2 points a game. The Terrapins average 11.2 rebounds more than opponents, and have four players averaging at least 12 points.
The role model
There’s more to life than winning; Joanne McCallie embraces both.
At Maine, Michigan State and now at Duke, McCallie has followed one motto: “Developing people and empowering others.”
The 48-year-old McCallie has worked with causes as varied as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Crop Walk and cancer awareness. Five years ago, she created the “Choice Not Chance” kids club that emphasizes good choices; it influenced her to write her 2012 book by the same name. It focuses on teaching her players and kids how to make good choices in life through her own experiences and learned lessons.
For McCallie, life is about “passion, following your passions, making great choices and finding out exactly what you can do in this life.”
On the court, McCallie is the first Division I head coach to win a conference title in four different leagues: ACC, Big Ten, America East and North Atlantic.
In 2005, when Fortier was in junior high school, she was the AP National Coach of the Year after leading Michigan State to the national title game. In seven years at Duke, she’s 202-42, with four Elite Eight appearances.
This year, McCallie was challenged before the season began when two veteran guards transferred. The Blue Devils rallied, finishing 11-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference to earn an at-large berth in the NCAAs.
Fourth-seeded Duke (21-10 overall) is led by All-America center Elizabeth Williams (14.7 points, 8.9 rebounds a game) and freshman forward Azura Stevens (14.1, 8.3).
The loyal understudy
When Tennessee legend Pat Summitt stepped aside three years ago, the choice was obvious: Holly Warlick.
In March 2012, when she became Tennessee’s second head coach in 38 years, Warlick said, “This is what I do. I’m a basketball coach, and I’ve been at it all my life.”
Already a legend – she was the first Lady Vol to have her number retired – Warlick stepped unflinchingly out of Summitt’s long shadow.
“I’ve learned from the best, so I don’t see it as I’m following a legend,” said Warlick, who played for Summitt for four years, ending in 1980 – a year before Fortier was born.
She joined Summitt’s staff in 1985.
By all accounts, Warlick was the key assistant during most of the glory days in Knoxville, when the Lady Vols won eight national titles from 1987 to 2008.
When Summitt, suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, was forced into retirement in 2012, she admitted that Warlick already was doing “the bulk” of her work.
Tennessee has made a record 18 appearances in the Final Four, but none since 2008. Warlick said she’s excited by the challenge, not burdened by expectations.
“We want to compete for the national championship,” Warlick said before the season began. “We sell that to these kids. That’s why they came here. We haven’t done it in awhile. These kids want to get us back there.”
Since taking over, the 56-year-old Warlick has led the Lady Vols to a 7-2 record in NCAA play. This year they finished 15-1 in the Southeastern Conference. They’re 27-5 overall entering Saturday’s Sweet 16 game against Gonzaga.
Senior Isabelle Harrison, Tennessee’s leading scorer, was lost for the season after suffering an ACL tear on Feb. 15. The Vols are one of the nation’s best defensive teams, are strong on the boards and have a proven leader in guard Cierra Burdick.
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