Summer Q&A with Women's Basketball Head Coach Stefanie Pemper
Aug 19, 2013
After winning the program's first Patriot League Tournament title in 2011, the Mids completed a three-peat in 2013 and made their third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper took a break recently to answer some questions about the program. This is Part I of a two-part interview.
You started last season 7-8 then went 14-4 to finish with 21 wins. What was the difference?
“A few things. Seven of those first 8 losses were on the road, so playing 10 of our final 18 games at home helped. Truthfully, we played a tough non-conference schedule and took some losses. Adding Chloe Stapleton in December helped our guard depth, three-point shooting and confidence. For me, I made a little attitude adjustment after Princeton. In that game, we’re down five with seven minutes to go and lose going away. The way it ended was hard for everyone. I recognized something wasn’t working and had to change. I’d never coached a team without a senior and it was challenging, especially when expectations were so high.”
How did you feel about Jade Geif not getting Patriot League Player of the Year?
“The young woman who won it—Kelsey Minato—was just as deserving as Jade because she put up absolutely fantastic numbers and her team beat ours. I knew when they beat us in February there was a good chance she’d win the award. But for sure I was upset because I knew how hard Jade worked to improve her game, I knew the expectations she played under, I saw the big plays she made for us on offense and defense, and I knew how talented she is. Jade is a treasure; I couldn’t love and respect her any more than I do.”
How did you win the 2013 Patriot League Tournament championship?
“With a special team of women. We escaped the quarterfinals with a win, and we played well in the semis and finals. We reached a impressive level of maturity for a team with no seniors. In the tournament, we played with good emotion, we were aggressive and under control. We had genuine confidence from our preparation, and we kept our poise when things didn’t go our way. And we did it all under the pressure of being two-time defending champs. Alix Membreno, in winning Tournament MVP, showed what a truly great player she is, and the effective way in which she can lead.”
You have now led Navy to an 11-2 record in the Patriot League Tournament in your five seasons, which followed a 17-year span where the Mids were a combined 9-17 in the tournament. What’s your secret?
“The truth is the stars have aligned in key ways. Our coaching staff has been on the same page, our support staff has been instrumental, and our athletic director Chet Gladchuk has been phenomenal. But the biggest reason is our players have worked their tails off and truly had a singular focus on improving, winning, and not caring who gets the credit. When fans watch us play, they leave the arena loving our team chemistry, our effort, and most of all the players that bring it every game. We’ve had inspiring women wear the Navy uniform.”
Kara Pollinger set the record for most points in a championship game. Talk about her impact on the team.
“First of all, Kara cares so much. She shows respect to everyone in our program, she’s totally committed to our team, and she’s humble. I recently came across my evaluation of her from a game her senior year at Tolsia H.S. in West Virginia. I wrote, ‘She definitely plays with a love for the game, her teammates, and competition. I love Kara, but she's going to have to develop physically in terms of strength and we'll have to see what kind of determination and passion for the game she has.’ Check, check and check. Kara’s as good as it gets. She comes from a town of only 800 people and she’s a successful mechanical engineering student at the United States Naval Academy. We’re all grateful for every day we get to work with her.”
You played Kentucky tough for 35 minutes in the NCAA tournament. Is there anything you would do differently if you played the game over?
“We needed a Plan C against their full court pressure. What worked in the first half didn’t work as well in the second and we didn’t have another adjustment. I cannot emphasize how different Kentucky was from what we played all year. Not just in terms of height and talent, but going against full court pressure is challenging when you haven’t done it for 32 games. The score was 49-40 with 5:39 remaining! We needed our X’s and O’s to give us confidence at that point so our players had a better chance to make plays.”
What was your favorite memory of last season?
“When the horn sounded to end regulation of the Patriot League quarterfinal game in a 48-48 tie, our players gathered on the bench and started talking without the coaches. Next thing I knew they’d formed a tight circle and were getting rowdy. I had to butt in—I think to suggest an offense—but that was it. We all were relieved Jade took that charge in regulation to get us the ball back, then made two free throws to tie it. But they turned relief into a collective will that wasn’t going to be denied. I’d never seen a team do that. They celebrated that OT win like it was a championship and that really warmed my heart.”
Was there a senior on another team in the League who graduated that you’ll miss playing against?
“Heavens no; happy graduation to all of them! But seriously, your college career is such a journey and from playing everybody twice in our League to watching film, all coaches have a sense of what kids persevere through. I would have enjoyed coaching Lindsay Horbatuck at Bucknell because she led the League in rebounding two years. Anna Simmers at Army was a nightmare matchup; you hoped for the best against her sometimes. She showed leadership in our February game. One of her teammates was playing super tough defense on one of our best players and I heard Simmers yell, ‘I see you workin’!’ She really wanted that game and was affecting outcome in a selfless way.”
Are you able to appreciate the success the team has had the past three years?
“To a large degree, yes. I make sure to enjoy success because it’s the culmination of so much from so many people and it usually involves luck, too. My first two years at Navy, we didn’t win a championship but I enjoyed seeing those seniors achieve winning records, advance to the semis of the League tournament, and win a Star trophy. We had individuals play the best basketball of their careers, grow as teammates, and have a lot of fun and laughs. During that time NWB got its pride back. What I often don’t get to appreciate are the special plays that change games. I’m usually so focused on the next play that I don’t soak in a player accomplishing something she’s worked really hard for. I might be an assistant coach again someday just to revel in that pure joy.”