Alix Membreno was not destined to play Division I college basketball, let alone become a key member of a team that has now made three straight NCAA tournaments. Recruited to Navy as a state champion and record-holder javelin thrower in New Mexico, Membreno quickly realized how much she missed basketball.
It was during her year at the Naval Academy prep school that Membreno reconnected with the sport she had played throughout high school.
"When I went to the prep school, I really thought I had made the most serious mistake of my life," Membreno, now a junior, recalled Monday night, shortly before she and her Navy teammates watched the NCAA tournament selection show from an Annapolis restaurant. "I called Stef and they gave me a shot."
Stefanie Pemper, Navy's fifth-year coach, is happy that Membreno made that call. A starter since early in her freshman year, Membreno has turned into the best all-around player for 15th-seeded Navy (21-11), which will face the No. 2 seed in the Bridgeport region, seventh-ranked Kentucky (27-5), Sunday at St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y.
Membreno, a 5-9 guard, was named the Most Valuable Player in this year's Patriot League tournament after averaging nearly 13 points, more than nine rebounds and seven assists while taking on the opponent's best offensive player. She lost a chance to be the league's Defensive Player of the Year on a tiebreaker.
"She has a really good feel for the game, defensively especially, where to be on the court, and that speaks to her instincts," Pemper said. "Offensively her IQ has really grown. She really can do everything. With her ability, with the combination of her skill set and her size and her athleticism and her competitive drive, she can really dominate practice, and to be honest, dominate a game."
Said Membreno: "I always tell the coaches that I have an identity crisis, I don't know what I am. I'm a shooting guard, but when I play against smaller guards, I end up in the post. When we need a substitute at the point, I end up playing the 1. It's really confusing."
Junior forward Jade Geif, Navy's leading scorer, said that Membreno "brings such a competitive edge, whenever we're in a game, you can see it in her eyes that we're going to win. She goes so hard. She's an incredible rebounder for a guard. She's terrific in every way."
Geif said the fact that Membreno wasn't even recruited for basketball "is amazing" and that she continues to participate in two sports "is incredible, especially at the Naval Academy, where doing one sport is hard enough."
It shouldn't be a surprise at how Membreno has developed, given her athletic gene pool and her family's history for hard work.
Her mother qualified for the 1984 Olympic trials in the 100-yard dash, but the former Shelley Butler said that her father, who wouldn't let her play sports in high school, told her she had to attend her graduation at Boston University instead. Her paternal grandfather, Francisco Membreno, was a member of the El Salvador national soccer team back in the 1960s.
Her paternal grandmother, Edis, who came to the U.S. from El Savador "with the clothes on her back" and started a business on Long Island, has promised to buy Membreno a car when she graduates. Her father, Frank, started a restaurant supply company out of the back of his truck. Her paternal grandmother, John Butler, worked three jobs to support his family.
"She gets it from everywhere. She sees that hard work paid off," said Shelley Guerrero (nee Butler), who raised Membreno as a single mother while working for AT&T for nearly 20 years.
According to her mother, Membreno's decision to attend Navy was made in part with her family in mind. After starting high school in Belle Glade, Fla., and graduating in Albuquerque, N.M., Membreno wanted to return to her East Coast roots. Her father's family remained on Long Island, her mother had moved back to Florida and her paternal grandparents were living in Allentown, Pa.
When John Butler suffered a stroke after attending this year's Army game in Annapolis, it deeply affected his granddaughter. Already fighting tendinitis in her right shoulder, Membreno went through a three-game stretch when she shot 5-for-34 from the field, including missing all 15 of her field-goal attempts in a Feb. 27 win at home over Lehigh.
Membreno said her grandfather has been "my best friend my whole life" and that his first couple of weeks spent in a local hospital and then at a nearby rehab facility proved to be a distraction. Butler had recovered enough to attend the Patriot League championship game, where his granddaughter was able to hug him after Navy won.
"I was just going through mixed emotions and letting them get the best of me, I think," Membreno said. "Now that he's doing much better, it really helped out."
Membreno has become something of Navy's emotional leader — and social director.
"She's such a social person," Geif said. "She's good at talking to people. Whenever we go on an airplane or go somewhere, she'll wind up taking pictures with somebody or getting a good deal on something because Alix is such a smooth talker. When we played in New York, some guys came out to watch us play."
Said Pemper: "She loves our program. She's so emotionally invested. I think that translates to what people see in our success. She treats her teammates like family, she loves our coaches. It really means a lot to her and when that's the case, practices mean more to her, big games mean more to her, winning championships mean more to her and just being a team player and doing what the coaches explain what's important."
This Sunday's game will be a homecoming of sorts for Membreno, who was born at a hospital located about 15 minutes away from Lou Carnesecca Arena. Having played in the NCAA tournament the past two years — losing to Maryland last season in College Park and to DePaul at Penn State in 2011 — should help Membreno and the Midshipmen when they face Kentucky.
"I think every game is pressure," she said. "I think that's what kind of ignites our competitiveness. When you're playing really big schools and that caliber [of] teams, you have nothing to lose. I think the pressure eases when the competition is raised."
As for the way her college basketball career has evolved at the academy, Membreno seems thankful.
"I've definitely been really blessed, coming to the Naval Academy and not knowing what to expect," she said. "It's definitely been a journey, but it's been a wonderful one."