By Rick Woelfel
When all the performers are in sync Navy is a wonderful basketball team to watch. Its five players on the court seemingly think as one, moving the ball efficiently, while taking good shots and working hard at the other end of the floor.
“When we are playing well and people are playing with confidence, we’re fun to watch for sure,” says Coach Stefanie Pemper. “Because we can spread the floor and get everyone involved, and score from a variety of positions.”
“When we’re going well we’re really fun to watch and really fun to coach. You feel like that’s the way the game should be played. Just really, good team basketball, and aggressive on both ends.”
The Midshipmen are truly an ensemble cast. Seven players are averaging 19 minutes a game or more; no one is averaging more than 27. Five players are averaging at least seven points per game but just two are averaging in double figures.
It’s an approach that is working; Navy is 21-8 on the season and 14-4 in the Patriot League heading into post-season tournament play.
Life at the Naval Academy is a series of challenges, on and off the basketball court. The three seniors on the roster, Ashanti Kennedy, Justice Swett, and Sarita Condie will each begin fulfilling a five-year military commitment following their graduation this spring. For the past four years, they have fit their passion for basketball in and around the demands of military life.
“I wake up every day knowing that it’s going to be a challenge,” Kennedy says, “and initially I was a little swayed as a freshman, but then once I saw that I could get past those challenges and reach my goals, I guess I embraced it more; the challenges of every day that we face here.”
A native of Virginia Beach, Va.. near the Navy town of Norfolk, Kennedy was intrigued early on by the idea of attending the academy. “Two of my AAU coaches are enlisted in the military and when I was notified that I was being recruited by Navy they were telling me ‘You need to go that’s one of the top schools,’ and ‘It’s Division I basketball’ So it was a great opportunity that I wanted to take (advantage of) as well.”
Kennedy has been coming off the bench for the most part this season but is fifth on the team in minutes played. She says the Midshipmen excel at picking each other up. “If one person isn’t doing well, one night, then we have people stepping up,” she says, “everyone has each other’s back and just working cohesively. All the wins that we’ve had are team wins.”
Swett, a native of Nashville, Tenn., was originally going to play lacrosse at Navy but switched to basketball instead (she was an all-state selection in both sports in high school). When an older brother enrolled at West Point Prep it got her thinking about attending a military academy herself.
“It just seemed like the right fit,” she says. “School would be paid for, a good education, I could play sports, there are good opportunities after I graduate, just looked really appealing. I kind of wanted to kind of give back to my parents a little bit. Have them not have to pay for college the way they paid for high school.”
Swett admits that balancing her abundance of obligations at the academy wasn’t easy at first. “It took me definitely the entire plebe year and that summer to finally feel like I could even handle this,” she says. “By the time I got to sophomore year I was sort of figuring it out and I think switching to basketball actually helped me because my energy was better, my focus was a little better, I was doing what I loved so that has helped me a lot figure it out … You kind of have to figure out what it means to study really hard and to work every night. I think in high school you can get some breaks here and there. But you figure it out over time and once you’ve got it things start clicking.”
Despite being a 5-8 guard, Swett leads the Midshipmen in rebounding at 6.9 rpg. and is second on the team in assists. She prides herself on doing the so-called little things well. “Whether that means getting rebounds, trying to get steals or pass the ball to the right people,” she says. “I’ve always tried to make that a focus in my role on the team. I think points will come and go and it’s always nice to score but those things I can control every game I try and bring that.”
Condie is the team’s leading scorer at 13.3 ppg. Fittingly enough, she scored her 1,000th point against Army on February 18 in front of more than 5,000 fans at Navy’s Alumni Hall.
Like her teammates, Condie, a native of Lovelock, Nev., uses the word ‘balance’ a lot and says that’s been a big reason for the success of this year’s team.
“I think that’s why we’ve been successful this season,” she says. “We are really, really balanced, and we have just so many different threats and weapons on the court where it’s hard to just say; ‘Okay Navy is successful because of this one player.’ It’s really just that every single person on the roster is a threat that teams have to look out for and pay attention to.”
Balance is important off the court as well, as it is for any member of the Brigade of Midshipmen, particularly those who are also varsity athletes.
“Everything’s pretty structured for us,” Conde says. “Everybody wakes up at the same time. We have formations in the morning at 7:00. We have uniform inspections usually at that time and then we have breakfast, everyone goes to breakfast, and then we have class all morning, 7:55 until lunch, which is around noon. We have a formation at that time, and then we go to lunch; everyone eats at the same time.”
” Then for basketball, we usually have something at lunch, whether that’s mental toughness training, maybe a film session, or maybe even a short lift. Then we have class in the afternoon and then everybody at the school goes to what’s called sports period. That’s when all of the varsity sports have their practices and then other people doing their exercise, whether that’s running or doing a workout, or lifting and then we all go to dinner at about the same time. Usually for athletes it’s close to 6:30 or 7:00 with practice, and lifting and recovery.”
” Then sometimes we have things in the evening we have to go to, those go until 8:00. Then from 8:00 until pretty much whenever you finish your homework you’ve given that amount of time to study and do your homework. Then you start all over again the next day.”
Not every coach would be comfortable in that kind of atmosphere. But Pemper, who is finishing her ninth season at Navy, seems well-suited to the task. A native of Huntingdon Beach, Cal., Pemper played at Idaho State before going into coaching, first as an assistant at Alaska-Anchorage and then at her alma mater before spending three years as an assistant at Harvard. She then spent years as the head coach at Division III Bowdoin, where she won 235 games and took her team to the Division III national championship game in 2004 where it suffered its only loss of the season.
Pemper arrived at Navy to find a program that wasn’t as robust as some others at the academy. Women weren’t admitted to the nation’s service academies until the 1976-77 academic year. (Gerald Ford was in the White House and America had just finished celebrating its 200th birthday).
Navy fielded a women’s basketball team that year at the junior-varsity level. The program stepped up to Division II the next year before ascending to the Division I level in 1991-92, the same season it joined the Patriot League.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of women’s athletics at the academy.
Heading into the Patriot League Tournament, Pemper has recorded 169 victories at Navy. She’s taken three teams to the NCAA tournament while winning three Patriot League tournaments titles plus one regular-season championship and two co-championships.
“(The Naval Academy) It’s a place I respect very much,” Pemper says. It’s a disciplined place, is structured placed, but it isn’t as rigid of thought as people might think, in trying to help people find a leadership voice.”
“There’s an openness to it that I really admire. And I think allows me, because I’m of course different than other coaches who are different than other coaches, some freedom to be myself.”
“I enjoy it. I think my training in Division III and the Ivy League really helped because you have such strict parameters of time you get with the women and just there being pulled in different directions in terms of their emotional and mental energy.”
“It’s different here than it is in other places, (as far as) the amount time and the amount of emotional and mental energy they can give to varsity sports so I think I was prepared well. I enjoy working here. I think it’s a special place.”
The three seniors we spoke with for this story, will soon graduate, Kennedy with a degree in International Relations, Condie in English, and Swett in American Politics and Law. All will soon be ensigns in the United States Navy with assignments in Surface Warfare.
Swett is proud of what she’s accomplished over the past four years, on and off the court. “There have been days when I am shocked that I made it to this point in my career,” she says. “To be having the success we’re having with basketball and academically for me is very satisfying and my hard work is paying off. “I’m very appreciative of that and glad it’s happening this year.”
It’s no secret that the world is a dangerous place. These women, and their peers in the Brigade of Midshipmen, will soon be charged with the task of serving and protecting our country. Kennedy says she’s more excited by the prospect than apprehensive.
“I think staying committed and continuing to go here for the four years helps in recognizing the commitment,” she says. Now that I’m in my senior year and where I’m going to be, once I graduate and am commissioned, I’m more excited than I guess fearful or discouraged.”
The military life is not for everyone. So, what was it that led Condie to travel the path she has chosen?
“I think it’s really unique for women, especially here, who play sports,” she says, “because we’re given these talents to play collegiately, but that’s only going to last up to a certain amount of time.”
“So I felt like this was a school where I could use the skills that I have in basketball knowing that once that’s complete, I have the opportunity to serve others and use the experience that I’ve learned on the basketball court, whether that’s leadership or just learning how to overcome adversity. It’s going to translate into helping others and helping with the whole wartime effort I guess.”
“It’s definitely an abstract thing that I’ve learned over time. But I think this is kind of an ideal place to go if you’re a competitive athlete because everything that you’ve learned since you were growing up playing sports translates into what we’re going to be doing as officers.”
Photos courtesy of Navy Women’s Basketball