Confidence building for Navy women's basketball after impressive start
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: December 19, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Sarita Condie and Justice Swett brought leadership, determination and an irrepressible will to win to the basketball court. Those two seniors were a major reason why the Navy women greatly exceeded expectations last season, finishing as runner-up in the Patriot League for both the regular season and tournament.
Condie and Swett then led the Midshipmen to a landmark victory in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. It was the first win in a national postseason tournament in program history.
So it stood to reason that Navy would need time to find its footing after graduating the two driving forces behind last season’s success. That certainly was the consensus among those voting in the Patriot League preseason poll as the Mids were picked to finish fourth in 2018.
Few would have foreseen that Taylor Dunham and Hannah Fenske would seamlessly step into the shoes of those departed captains and provide very similar leadership and drive. With their newly-appointed captains leading the way, the Midshipmen are off to a surprising 9-1 start.
“Losing Justice and Sarita was tough because they were good players that showed good leadership on and off the court,” Fenske said. “Taylor and I knew we had to step up and take on bigger roles, especially as far as leading the team.”
Both players have been simply sensational so far with Dunham averaging a team-high 15.4 points while dishing off 36 assists and Fenske ranking second in scoring with 13 points per game and leading the way with 37 assists.
“Hannah and Taylor have been great as far as floor leadership and just showing some of the younger players what it takes,” Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper said. “I think the women are really focused. We’re getting the most out of what we have, which is the sign of a good team.”
Navy opened the season 9-0, its best start since going 11-0 to begin the 1995-96 campaign. Any chance of bettering that mark came to an end when Navy dropped a 94-87 overtime thriller at New Mexico on Dec. 10. It was a battle of unbeatens and the Midshipmen more than held up their end of the bargain in pushing the Lobos (11-0) to the limit on their home court.
“We really stepped up to the challenge. I think it shows that we can play with anyone on any given night,” Fenske said. “We took a lot of good things from that game and will definitely learn and grow from it going forward.”
Pemper did not know what to expect out of this club as so many players were being asked to take on new and different roles. The 10th-year head coach felt there was plenty of talent in place and was confident Dunham and Fenske would provide consistent play.
Going unbeaten through the first month of the season has been uplifting for the Mids, who suddenly look like a very serious contender for the Patriot League championship. Navy’s best wins during the non-conference portion of the slate have come against North Dakota State, St. Bonaventure and Richmond.
“I don’t ever make predictions because you never know what the opposition is going to bring,” Pemper said. “I will say that we prepare really well and expect to win every game. One good trait of this team is that we do not play down to the level of our opponent. So I’m not surprised, just very pleased and happy.”
Fenske echoed those sentiments, pointing out that returning players put a lot of time and effort into improving during the spring, summer and fall months.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say surprised because we definitely knew we could have a strong team,” Fenske said. “I just think a lot of us didn’t know what to expect early on because it was a new team and a new season. You can really tell that all the hard work we did during the offseason has paid off.”
Navy has displayed the type of teamwork that sparked last season’s impressive run. Pemper has employed a nine-player rotation while going even deeper on the roster at times. All the starters have found a role with junior wing Bianca Roach becoming the defensive stopper, sophomore pivot Kaila Clark providing an inside presence and freshman power forward Sophie Gatzounas bringing unexpected toughness while playing out of position.
“It’s just been a big team effort. Everyone contributes something every game,” Fenske said. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and build off each other.”
Clark has been a real workhorse on the backboards and leads the team with almost 10 rebounds per game. The long-armed and athletic 5-foot-11 product of Archbishop Spalding has also rung up 24 blocked shots.
“Kaila brings tremendous competitiveness to the court. Her shot-blocking is really special and makes a major impact,” Pemper said. “Kaila is being a little more aggressive offensively. She has been very good at driving and finishing at the rim.”
Sophomore guard Morgan Taylor has delivered instant offense off the bench, ranking third on the team in scoring (11.5 points) while shooting a sizzling 48 percent from 3-point range. The 5-foot-7 Georgia native played in just 13 games a year ago, basically getting mop up time.
“Morgan is a very versatile scorer. She’s making threes, penetrating and getting layups in transition,” Pemper said.
Pemper implemented an up-tempo philosophy last season and the Mids proved very adept at pushing the pace. That style of play has continued this season with Navy going up and down the court while averaging almost 76 points per game.
Richmond, which boasts the team slogan of “Embrace the Pace,” could not keep up with Navy in suffering a 76-56 loss on its home floor.
“We’re taking care of the ball, making good decisions in the open court and getting a fair amount of fastbreak points,” Pemper said.
Navy concludes the non-conference portion of its schedule on Wednesday night when it travels to Long Island University-Brooklyn. Pemper is giving the players five days off for the holiday break before resuming practice next Tuesday in preparation for the Dec. 29 Patriot League opener against Loyola-Maryland.
“Obviously, the Patriot League schools are going to scout us more intensely than non-conference so that might change some things,” Pemper said. “We’re eager to begin league play and see how things go.”
Navy could have double digit wins going into the Patriot League and Fenske said that success should translate in one respect.
“I think going into the Patriot League with the confidence we have built will be a big benefit,” she said. “At the same time it is a fresh start and we have to prove ourselves again once the league gets going.”
Navy could become even deeper during conference action as promising freshman wing Sierra Swanda has resumed practicing after sitting out with a broken hand while volleyball standout Maggie Phillips has joined the team.
Phillips was a second team All-State selection in basketball at Loudoun County High. The 6-footer is a tremendous leaper and could contribute after shaking off the rust of having not played the sport in four years.
“Maggie Phillips has been with us for a few weeks and is improving every day. She is high energy and scrappy. I could see her helping with defense and rebounding,” Pemper said.