Navy's switch to Patriot League is good deal, says Lengyel


ANNAPOLIS -- The men's basketball team is happy, but soccer players and some women's teams aren't entirely pleased.

But Jack Lengyel, the athletic director who engineered Navy's switch this year from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Patriot League, thinks the positives far outweigh any negatives.

"We're playing in a league that's more compatible with the mission of the U.S. Naval Academy," Lengyel said.

Navy began its stay in the Patriot League Sept. 7, with a 2-1 soccer victory over Lafayette. Arch-rival Army, Bucknell, Colgate, Fordham, Holy Cross and Lehigh are the other members of a conference that trumpets high admission standards and need-based athletic scholarships.

This is the Patriot League's second year as an all-sports conference. It began as a Division I-AA football league in 1984. It still includes football, but Navy and Army don't field league teams in that sport because they would never consider losing the national recognition that comes with their I-A status.

Navy will put six of its 23 men's teams and six of its 10 women's teams in the Patriot League. Lengyel didn't rule out other Navy teams joining, but plans are for the Middies to remain independent in most sports, especially lacrosse.

The genesis of Navy playing Patriot games occurred on two fronts.

After 11 years in the Colonial Athletic Association and its forerunner, the ECAC South, Navy's competitors in men's basketball were recruiting talent Navy couldn't. A solid Division II independent in women's sports, Navy also found it necessary to follow Army's lead and step up to Division I, and felt it could do so more easily in the less demanding Patriot League.

"From a recruiting standpoint, we had to move our women to Division I," Lengyel said. "If Army can do it, Navy can do it as well. With our numbers [438 women at the academy], it would have been hard to do so in the CAA."

The women's basketball and volleyball teams will be immediate factors in the Patriot League. In swimming and the three running programs, the Middies should dominate the league but will miss life at the top of Division II.

In its last year in Division II, Navy had eight swimming All-Americans. Distance runner Marti Shue was a three-season All-American, yet her school-record time in the 3,000 meters, 9:37.22, was 18 seconds off of the qualifying standard for the Division I championships.

"Navy women qualifying for the NCAAs are going to be few and far between," said cross country coach Karen Boyle. "Division II status was compatible with the size of our enrollment.

"We typically drew the above-average athlete who had a chance to excel on the national level in Division II. It's going to be hard to draw the elite athlete here, and maybe once every five years we'll get someone who could go to the Division I championships."

National recognition also will come harder to the men's soccer program. The CAA is one of only nine conferences with an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. In 1988, Navy won the CAA and went to the national tournament for the only time since 1974.

"Losing the automatic bid, that's my only complaint about the move," soccer coach Greg Myers said. "I do see the need to do this. From an academic standpoint, we're now aligned with colleges more commensurate with us."

In men's basketball, the Middies won three straight CAA titles from 1985-87, but went 7-35 in their last three seasons of CAA play. David Robinson's departure coincided with changes elsewhere. At James Madison, for instance, transfers Steve Hood (Maryland), Fess Irvin (LSU), Chancellor Nichols (Mississippi State), and most recently, Michael Venson (Georgetown) have joined Lefty Driesell since he took over in 1988.

"The Patriot League has rules that appeal to us," basketball coach Pete Herrmann said. "You can't have fifth-year students or grad students playing, and it makes for an equitable situation. We bring in plebes, and other schools in the CAA were bringing in transfers with NCAA tournament experience at other four-year schools."

Navy in Patriot League

* Men's sports: Cross country, soccer, basketball, golf, tennis, outdoor track and field.

* Women's sports: Cross country, volleyball, basketball, swimming, indoor track and field, outdoor track and field.

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