March 6, 2014
By Gary Lambrecht
When Stefanie Pemper convinced a group of five teenagers scattered across America to leave home and bring their skills and smarts and distinct personalities to the United States Naval Academy, she had no way of knowing they eventually would mesh so seamlessly.
Looking back on the arrival of what turned out to be greatest recruiting class in the 37-year history of women's basketball at Navy, Pemper, the school's sixth-year head coach, marveled at what seniors Jade Geif, Alix Membreno, Kara Pollinger, Audrey Bauer and M.L. Morrisoncollectively have created and what they will leave behind.
The numbers sum up the story. When top-seeded Navy (23-6) plays host to Lehigh on Thursday night in the Patriot League tournament quarterfinals, the Midshipmen will be chasing their fourth straight conference title and their fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament.
Before this incoming class arrived, Navy had never won a PL tournament in 19 previous seasons as a league member, had produced just one winning season in the nine years that preceded Pemper's arrival and had never been to the NCAA tournament.
The women's basketball culture is radically altered now at Navy, where the program's most accomplished senior class has raised the bar dramatically. Over the past four seasons, the Mids have posted a record of 82-44 and have deepened their mark on school history by playing their best basketball in the biggest games.
Go beneath the numbers, though. See a handful of unselfish, intelligent, determined players that have embraced roles and have kept improving as a result. See a group that is a study in diversity and chemistry - traits that often define great teams and elude the ones that fall short.
"In the beginning, there was never any sense they would be as successful as they are," said Pemper, recalling the recruiting of the parts that would grow into Navy's version of the Fab Five.
"Talent certainly has something to do with what they've done. Our success has been based on complementary skill sets," Pemper added. "But it's really about their attention to preparation with film work, the way they have come to play every day, the way they have put in the extra time. It was evident early on that they had a love for the game."
"We're all very competitive. We all want to win the drill [in practice]. But we also have this balance between us, on and off the court," said Membreno, the three-year starter at guard whose versatility and defensive tenacity mark her place in Navy's scheme of things.
"Winning can be stressful. The pressure to be good can be overwhelming at times. But what has made it easy for us is we all figured out [early] that we loved playing basketball, we loved to win and we loved each other."
The puzzle pieces that constitute the core of the Mids are all about variety. They came from suburbs near major cities and from tiny, rural surroundings. They came from the upper Midwest, the East Coast and Southwest and from west of the Appalachian Mountains on the West Virginia-Kentucky border.
There is Geif, the 6-foot forward and four-year starter from Lakeville, Minnesota who is skilled at fishing and loves cowboy boots and country music. Bauer, a 6-foot forward and three-year starter from the Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich, Illinois, counts baking as a talent and pursues knitting as a hobby. Morrison, a 6-foot forward and key bench presence, hails from the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Southlake, Texas, is the team's unabashed fashion queen who drives a four-door Dodge Ram and exudes Lone Star State pride. Pollinger, the 5-7 point guard and three-year starter from Fort Gay, W. Va. - population 702 - is the team's biggest rap and hip-hop fan.
And then there is Membreno, the 5-9 guard who has started since early in her freshman year and lists Loxahatchee, Florida as her hometown. Born in New York City, she attended high school in Albuquerque, N.M., where she set a state record in the javelin throw and originally attracted the attention of Navy women's track and field coach Carla Criste. After spending a year at the academy's prep school in Rhode Island, Membreno became a two-sport star at Navy.
"We have such different personalities and backgrounds, and we fit each other like one," Geif said. "The basketball gods were kind."
Bauer is the closest thing to a den mother, with the way she looks after grades and other issues affecting the lives of her fellow seniors. Pollinger was painfully shy as a plebe. But over the past two years, she has become an animated leader, and there is no doubt that the little lady is in charge of the big girls on the floor. Morrison probably had the toughest time with the homesickness that gets to all Midshipmen adjusting to the academic and military rigors of the Yard.
Membreno, who enjoys virtually any kind of music with a beat and has a passion for the Salvadoran cuisine that reflects her ethnic roots, is the most outspoken and emotional one of the five. She's also the Navy guard mostly likely to dig out a tough rebound or look for contact near the basket.
Geif, equal parts tough, brash and bubbly, is probably the closest thing to an alpha female of the class. Among classmates who will become Navy pilots (Pollinger, Bauer and Membreno) and a surface warfare officer (Morrison), Geif stands apart as a soon-to-be-commissioned U.S. Marine Corps officer.
"Jade has a very strong personality," Morrison said. "She doesn't take any crap, especially on the basketball court."
"Jade was so competitive from the day she got here and wanted to be a vital part of things, whether she was setting a screen or getting a big score or rebound," Pemper said. "She gets the most unnerved if we're not winning."
Geif was the most precocious talent as a plebe. She started every game that year, was named PL Rookie of the Year after averaging 9.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, and has started all but one of her 126 career games with remarkable consistency. She has shot at least 51 percent in each of her last three seasons.
The other starters developed nicely in Geif's path. Membreno, one of the league's better rebounding and passing guards for the past three years, made too many plays on defense to ride the bench for long as a freshman. Bauer's outside shot made her a steady, sixth man as a freshman. She has started 93 games since that year.
Pollinger, after playing sparingly as a backup point guard that first year, took over the Navy offense as a sophomore and has started every game since the beginning of the 2011-12 season. Always a dual-threat as a passer and scorer, she has saved her best for last. This year, Pollinger has averaged 4.5 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-1. But her shooting and scoring - a team-high average of 13.9 points, a league-high 46 percent from three-point range - has jumped out.
"It's inspiring to see how focused and driven my teammates are, and it's humbling to enjoy every practice, every game, every day with [the other seniors]," Pollinger said. "With the end in sight, I take every shot as if it's my last shot."
The game of basketball is what buoyed and bonded the Fab Five. And the teams they have led have figured out the game in differing ways. The first two years, Navy found its footing after struggling at times early, best evidenced by the 18-14 squad that finished tied for third in the PL two years ago, before storming through the conference tournament to win its second title in a row.
Last year, Navy had trouble dealing with the high expectations shouldered by their seasoned, junior class. On Jan. 20, the Mids were 9-8, had lost to Army and had earned more than one stern lecture from Pemper. Navy then won 12 of 14 games and got game-highs from Geif, Membreno and Pollinger, respectively, while winning their third straight league title.
The seniors have experienced a few hiccups this year, but have been mostly in control of the conference they won with a 15-3 mark. Geif and Pollinger earned all-conference first-team honors - Geif's second straight such recognition - while Membreno was named the PL's defensive player of the year and a second-team honoree for the third consecutive year.
Fittingly, no one, not even the ultra-consistent Geif, has ever been named Player of the Year.
With the end just up ahead, the Mids have two huge goals in mind. Win a fourth straight conference title, and win the first NCAA tournament game in school history. And they intend to do it while savoring every moment together.
"The chemistry with us is more than understanding which way Kara wants to drive [to the basket] or which block Jade wants to catch [the ball] on," Bauer said. "It's about a bond and a trust in each other."
"Sometimes, when I've been lacing up my shoes [recently before practice or a game], I thinking about how I don't want this to end," Membreno said. "I could play basketball forever with this team."