Last season was very uplifting for the Navy women’s basketball program on many levels.
A team that was picked sixth in the preseason poll came within a whisker of capturing the Patriot League championship, losing to top-seeded Bucknell in overtime. The Midshipmen earned a berth in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament and promptly made history.
Navy rallied from a 10-point, fourth quarter deficit to upset George Washington on its home court in the opening round of the WNIT. It was the program’s first victory in a postseason national tournament and only the second by a Patriot League school in the 20-year history of the event.
Sarita Condie and Justice Swett, the catalysts of last season’s remarkable run, have graduated, but their spirit lives on.
“Sarita and Justice did leave such a huge impression. Together, they showed what one person who is really driven can do,” Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper said. “Sarita and Justice both wanted their team to be good. They had a will to win that permeated the rest of the team. I definitely think our returning players did learn from that mentality.”
Senior guard Taylor Dunham also played a big part in last season’s surprising success and said the Midshipmen want to take things one step further in 2017-2018.
“Our goal every year is to win a Patriot League championship and we fell a bit short of that last season. We want to redeem ourselves as far as that’s concerned,” Dunham said. “I think this team is really motivated to get to the NCAA Tournament. It would be really cool to reach March Madness instead of the NIT.”
Dunham will serve as team captain along with fellow senior guard Hannah Fenske. Those two returning starters have already filled the leadership void left by the departure of Condie and Swett.
“Our co-captains are really good this year. Hannah and Taylor are so deserving, so embracing of their roles and so accepting of each other. It’s been really neat to see them take charge of this team,” Pemper said.
Dunham is the top returning scorer after averaging 10.1 points last season and also led the Midshipmen with 112 assists. Fenske averaged 7.6 points and 4.1 rebounds to go along with 109 assists.
“Hannah primarily runs the point and has the ball in her hands a bit more, but she and Taylor are really interchangeable. It’s just a really nice backcourt combination,” Pemper said. “Taylor is a real threat taking the ball to the basket while Hannah has developed a nice mid-range game that should help us. They both shoot the three pretty well.”
Sophomore forward Kaila Clark is the other returning starter and continues to expand her overall game. The Archbishop Spalding product enjoyed a strong rookie campaign, averaging 5.2 points and 5.1 rebounds while leading the Mids with 59 blocked shots and ranking second with 58 steals.
“Kaila Clark has the potential to be a Patriot League All-Defensive selection. She is really a menace at the four position in one particular defense,” Pemper said. “Obviously, Kaila makes a big impact with her shot-blocking ability. We want her to be smart about going for blocks and not just swinging at everything. We don’t want her to get out of position.”
Clark is improving on the offensive end, moving better off-ball and getting more comfortable creating off the dribble. She must improve as a free throw shooter after making just 57 percent last season.
Junior guard Bianca Roach will join the starting lineup for Friday night’s season opener at Marist. The 5-foot-7 Virginia native played in all 34 games a year ago and averaged 17.2 minutes, ranking third on the team with 35 steals. Pemper believes Roach can be the team’s best perimeter defender, but acknowledged she must become more of a factor on offense after averaging just 2.9 points.
“I think a key for Bianca is having a better field goal percentage. She is very explosive driving to the basket and just needs to finish better,” Pemper said. “Bianca has been our most efficient statistical player in the two scrimmages. She has a lot of pride in the program.”
Navy’s fifth starter remains in question as the coaching staff is considering a number of options. Sophomore forward Laurel Jaunich, a 6-footer who averaged 4.9 points and 2.9 rebounds last season, is a possibility.
“We can play Kaila and Laurel together if we want more size,” said Pemper, noting that Clark and Jaunich essentially subbed for each other last season.
Freshman Sophie Gatzounas has performed well enough in preseason to put herself in the conversation. The 5-foot-9 wing was a three-year captain and scored more than 1,000 career points at South Hadley High in Massachusetts
“Sophie is a smart player who is athletic, jumps well and is comfortable with the physicality of the college game,” said Pemper, who is considering playing Gatzounas out of position at the four spot on the floor.
Junior guard Molly Sanders and sophomore guard Morgan Taylor will also be part of the rotation from the outset. Sanders averaged 13.2 minutes per game last season while Taylor has been described as a strong, explosive player.
“I think our seniors and juniors have really stepped up to the plate as far as leadership and we have a lot of talent in the sophomore and freshmen classes,” Dunham said. “Everyone worked really hard during the offseason to improve and players are ready to take on new roles. We have to find our identity as a team and individuals.”
Navy lost its best two-way player in Swett, a ferocious defender who snatched 90 steals and talented passer who dished off 90 assists. Condie was an accurate perimeter shooter who topped the team 85 3-pointers and drained a lot of clutch shots at crunch time.
Pemper is looking to Clark and Roach to take over as defensive stoppers while Dunham and Fenske both hit game-winning shots last season.
“Things are going great so far. It has been fun tackling challenges with this team. There’s just a cool, everyone on the same page, type of atmosphere,” Pemper said. “I have been impressed with the commitment I’ve seen from this team. Our players spent a lot of time in the gym on their own during the offseason.”