Column: Women's Sports Have Become the Jewel of NAAA
Earlier this week, Navy Athletics published a short video honoring the career of recently retired head volleyball coach Larry Bock.
It's difficult to come up with an accolade that Bock didn't receive, which isn't surprising considering that he is collegiate volleyball's all-time winningest head coach. Most of his 40-year, hall-of-fame career was spent at Juniata College, but the work he did at Navy cannot be overlooked.
Navy Volleyball has an interesting history. As one of the original women's sports at the academy, the program started in NCAA Division II where it achieved a moderate level of success. In 14 years of Division II play, Navy reached the 20-win plateau 11 times. The high-water mark came in 1986 when the team finished with a somewhat ridiculous 45-7 record. Jan Dainard, a long-time fixture in NAAA, earned Division II Atlantic Region Coach of the Year honors that season, while Diana Farraday and Kathy Kubiskie were named to the All-Region team. The season ended with a four-set loss to the Mississippi University for Women in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Navy hasn't been able to match that kind of success since joining Division I in 1991. There have been highlights; the Mids earned a share of the Patriot League regular-season title in 1999 and had back-to-back 20-win seasons in 2004 and 2005. Finding consistency, though, has been a challenge.
That challenge was met by Bock. After inheriting a program that had a combined 4-24 conference record in the two years before his arrival, Bock led the Mids to a .500 record in the Patriot League by his second season. Navy went on to post winning league records in four of the next five seasons, and in 2017 finished 23-8 (12-4) with a win over perennial powerhouse American before advancing to the program's first conference tournament final in 18 years. The 23 wins tied a school record for wins as a Division I program. Bock created a foundation that will help future Navy Volleyball teams compete for Patriot League championships.
Bock's impact is magnified because volleyball is one of the few Navy teams that hasn't been able to meet that standard regularly. Navy's is the premier athletic department in the Patriot League, having won the last four President's Cups and five of the last six. That run of dominance has been driven in large part by women's sports, which made the volleyball program's struggles a bit of a sore spot. The list of accomplishments by Navy's women's sports in recent years is extraordinary:
Women's lacrosse: The greatest women's team in service academy history is the 2017 Navy women's lacrosse team that advanced to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament, beating the 7-seed and 2-seed in the process. Head coach Cindy Timchal has turned Navy into a national championship contender, and Navy will enter the 2018 tournament ranked #7 in both the Inside Lacrosse and IWLCA polls. In only 11 years as a varsity team, Navy has won the Patriot League tournament a remarkable six times.
Women's soccer: Before last year's lacrosse team assumed the title of greatest service academy women's team, it belonged to the 2006 Navy women's soccer team, which finished the season ranked in the top 25 after advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament. That team finished 21-2-1 and beat #9 Penn State. The program had 21-straight winning seasons from 1995-2015 and was the regular season champion of the Patriot League this season after finishing 16-4-1 (6-0-1).
Women's basketball: In 2008, Stefanie Pemper took over a team that had gone 7-23 the year before her arrival and led them to a winning record. It would be the first of many; Navy hasn't suffered a losing season since. Through ten years in Annapolis, Pemper has led Navy to five 20-win seasons, three NCAA tournament appearances, and three WNIT appearances, including this year's 25-8 campaign.
Women's swimming: Navy women's swimming has been a member of the Patriot League for 27 years, and in that time they have won 17 league titles. They've won the ECAC meet in three of the last five years, and haven't lost to Army since 1988.
The women's track team won the 2018 Patriot League meet. Women's rowing has won the Patriot League three times in the last four years. Navy has fielded a women's golf team for only six years, and they are already Patriot League contenders, finishing second in the league in 2018. Navy women's tennis went varsity nine years ago already has seven 20-win seasons while advancing to the finals of the Patriot League tournament six times.
It's an impressive list, and its importance extends far beyond simple bragging rights.
Navy's accomplishments in women's athletics set the school apart from the other service academies. In the last decade, Navy has won the Patriot League Women's Championship Trophy twice while never finishing lower than third. In that same span, Army never finished higher than fourth. While Air Force has had individual standouts, particularly in track and swimming, no Air Force women's team has ever won a Mountain West championship. Their women's basketball team has lost more than 20 games in 20 of the last 22 years. Since moving from Division II to Division I in 1996, both Air Force women's soccer and volleyball have posted one winning season apiece, both in 1999.
Winning on the field is vital to accomplishing the Naval Academy's mission. The military is traditionally thought of as a male-dominated organization, which can make young women hesitant to consider applying to USNA. For a school that is responsible for providing the bulk of the Navy's career officer corps, that is unacceptable. The Naval Academy cannot afford to lose out on half of the available talent pool for admission. Athletic success is a tangible and relatable way to demonstrate to young women that the Naval Academy is a place where they can not only survive, but thrive.
The coaches and athletes responsible for this success should be proud. The Navy is better for their efforts.