Partners in the Dance

Partners in the Dance

Erin Edwards can still remember watching the women's basketball team during her visit to the Naval Academy as a senior in high school.

"The game that I saw, especially, was kind of rough," said Edwards, who committed to play for a program which finished the 2007-2008 year 7-23 overall.

Four years and a new head coach later, the program Edwards committed to is a distant memory, as an unprecedented run of success has the Navy women headed to the NCAA Tournament's ‘Big Dance' for a second consecutive year.

The architect of that success? That would be a California native and former Idaho State player who's equally at home with drawing up ball screens as she is in quoting Taoist philosophy. Just don't try telling her that. Because when it comes to Stefanie Pemper's views on basketball, the fourth year coach knows that every leader needs a partner when preparing for the ‘Big Dance.'

"I kind of look at it like a partnership," said Pemper. "I definitely use the word ownership with our players, wanting them to take ownership of the program. My vision is that when fans watch Navy women's basketball, that they're engrossed or smitten with the players, and not me."

Pemper is unorthodox, to say the least. She sits during games. She has her players call he by her nickname, ‘Stef,' and she likes to introduce the young women to a unique mix of sports psychology and eastern philosophy. She even quoted an existential philosopher on a diary entry for the website Navysports.com, drawing a slightly embarrassed – if not well intentioned – "oh jeez" from her senior guard.

"She is pretty philosophical," said Edwards, laughing. "She's always reading different stuff, and she has introduced the team to sports psychology. Not necessary like we practice techniques or anything like that, but we read articles often about how mental toughness has played a part. She can be a pretty deep and philosophical person."

Trailing off, Edwards added, "She's a very unique person."

That uniqueness has been the inspiration to Navy's turnaround over the last four years, including this year's Patriot League Tournament Championship and second straight ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Navy punched that ticket with a 57-48 win last Saturday against Holy Cross, fighting back from a 12-point halftime hole to set up a date with the No. 2 seed Maryland Terrapins in this Saturday's first-round NCAA action. For Navy players like sophomore Audrey Bauer, the win last Saturday – and the two prior wins against Colgate and at Lehigh in the Patriot League Tournament – demonstrate Pemper's philosophy of getting the women to think about each game as it comes.

"I think we were able to get back to the championship just because Steph had us thinking about it as taking it one game at a time," said Bauer, whose sister, Lydia, will be playing in the NCAA Tournament for UW-Green Bay. "We focused on Colgate, won that game, then the focus was solely on Lehigh, and when we won that game, then we could focus from there. To think from the first game that we were going to get back to the championship? You just can't think like that this time of year, because crazy things happen all the time."

Crazy things happen all the time. To some, the thought that a Navy team which had won just one Patriot League Tournament game in the eight years prior to 2008 would find itself as back-to-back league champs four years later might just have qualified as crazy. Pemper won't go so far to say that she never saw it coming, but she's equally quick to point out that she never approached the job at the Academy in terms of benchmarks or timetables. Even now, four years later, she's not one to quote the clichés of the coaching ranks or media talking heads, and openly voices a style of coaching that transfers ownership of the program to the players, and not the team's coaches and administrators.

"There was no timeframe. Nope. I am so not about that, and I completely despised it when people would say, ‘just wait until you get your recruits,'" Pemper said.

She continued, adding, "I hate that. I think that's terrible when coaches say that – and coaches do say that, it's not just fans. They're looking for something to be positive about, but I was committed to the team I inherited."

If Pemper's current team takes it game by game, then she and her current players take it month by month, stretch by stretch. There is no master formula charting out a rise to national prominence, and there are no tables pointing to when and where Navy should be – or will be – in the years to come.

"We just kind of take it month by month," she said. "That being said I'm not surprised we've won a couple of championships, and I won't be surprised if we don't win a championship next year. You've really just got to honor each season and each team and each group of people and their journeys, and this one ended up with a championship."

If ‘Steph' seems like a duck out of water at the Naval Academy, it's because she partly is. She speaks openly about not believing in ‘titles,' and even laughs when recalling how it took three years for her to finally break her players' insistence on calling her ‘coach.' But for what she may lack in the old-school, top-down leadership style one might expect from an academy coach, she makes up for in insight and effectiveness. And when she's not building her players' endurance through workouts or strengthening their resolve with psychology lessons, she's introducing them to elements of leadership that'll help them not only on the court, but on the battlefield, as well.

"At the start of every year, I share with the freshmen my biggest quote on coaching," she explained. "It's the Lao Tzu thought that ‘leadership is best when people barely know it exists.'

"I think it's different than the Naval Academy, but one of the reasons I felt like I could be a good fit here when I took the job is because when I went to graduation, the Teddy Roosevelt quote about the ‘man in the arena' was on the back of the graduation program. And I love that quote – ‘the credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena…' It's not the coach, and that was when I was like, "ok, alright, I see you Naval Academy."

And the Naval Academy has seen her too. Her players talk about a complete change in confidence from the time she arrived, and of always gathering new insight from her postgame talks and practice psychology lessons.

"Since I've been here, she's really just been teaching ownership ," Bauer said. "She talked about that after we won the (Holy Cross) game. Just the players and the ownership of what we do and the program that we have. That really impacts a lot of what we do.

What kind of philosophy will Pemper channel this week? Realism might be the best answer, with a little bit of mysticism mixed in. Facing a Maryland team which is fresh off its own conference tournament championship, she's aiming at giving the Terps a different look for Saturday, and hoping, perhaps, that a mystical wind blows through Navy's sails.

"We may have to do things differently, even offensively. My philosophy is you don't really go into these games just thinking, ‘play your game,'" she admits, with a laugh. "You have to admit that you are behind the eight-ball and that you're a big underdog, so what can you do to give yourself a chance? Then hope that there's just some ‘cosmic dust' sprinkled in College Park."

Win or lose on Saturday, Pemper's impact on the Academy has been dramatic, and her style of coaching, combined with the aspects of leadership inscribed in the young women at Navy, will be felt for years to come. For now though, seniors like Erin Edwards can take a moment to step back and say ‘wow,' as they get one final chance to join with their teammates before busting a move during the NCAA's ‘Big Dance.'

"Just the opportunity we have to play together, give everything we have, and leave our heart on the court – that's all we really want to do," Edwards said. "We want to play our best, and leave everything out there as a team."

Adamnettina – at – gmail.com

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