With four starters returning from a team that captured a second straight Patriot League championship, head coach Stefanie Pemper decided to ramp up the non-conference schedule for Navy women's basketball.
Iona, UC-Davis and Marquette were among the solid programs that were added to test the Midshipmen and get them ready for Patriot League play. Navy emerged from non-conference competition with a 7-8 record and Pemper wasn't overly pleased.
"I think we have definitely underachieved a bit. We're just not hitting on all cylinders," she said.
Pemper, in her fifth season as head coach, is not too worried. Navy compiled a non-conference record of 7-7 the previous two seasons and went on to win the Patriot League Tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm definitely not concerned. I think we'll be fine once we get into the league," she said. "I was just disappointed that we didn't pull out some games I thought we should have. We weren't as smart and didn't execute as well as we're capable."
Navy opened the season with back-to-back road losses at Iona and Stony Brook, the latter by just four points. The Midshipmen then won five of six contests with an overtime loss versus UC-Davis at the Husky Classic in Houston interrupting what could have been a nice winning streak.
"We were up by six with a minute and a half to go and couldn't put the game away because of poor free throw shooting. Then we gave up a three-pointer to their best shooter at the buzzer," Pemper bemoaned when asked about the UC-Davis game.
Pemper believes a 63-47 blowout loss to High Point in the finals of the Navy Classic might be the low point to date. She felt the Mids developed some opinions of opponent from watching High Point's semifinal then didn't follow the coaching staff's scouting report or game-plan.
Meanwhile, a convincing 71-60 defeat of Loyola and 57-48 victory over a strong East Carolina squad would rate as the high water marks of this season.
"I have seen glimpses of the type of team we can be," said Pemper, who owns a 41-30 record at Navy.
Navy is the preseason pick to three-peat as Patriot League champ, narrowly edging American by four points in the poll of coaches' and sports information directors. The Midshipmen captured the regular season crown in 2011, but finished in third place with an 8-6 mark last season.
American, which completed the conference campaign undefeated in 2012, graduated Patriot League Player of the Year Lisa Strack and Defensive Player of the Year Ebony Edwards.
Meanwhile, Navy returned second team All-Patriot League picks Jade Geif and Alix Membreno along with two other starters in Kara Pollinger and Audrey Bauer. Those four comprise a junior class that has enjoyed nothing but success in Annapolis.
Geif, a powerful 6-foot forward, is one of three players in Patriot League history to have been named tournament Most Valuable Player twice in her career. The Minnesota native leads Navy in scoring and rebounding with averages of 12.8 points and 7.6 boards.
Pollinger, a 5-foot-7 point guard, leads the team with 54 assists while ranking second in scoring (11.2 ppg) and steals (22). Membreno, a versatile 5-foot-9 wing, leads the Mids in steals (26), stands second in rebounding (6.3) and assists (44) and third in scoring (11.1).
Pemper has experimented with playing Membreno at point guard and Pollinger at shooting guard and said that could become a permanent switch starting with Sunday's Patriot League opener against Lafayette.
Bauer, a 6-foot forward, is averaging 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds. Erin Meador started 11 games at off guard, but has since been replaced in the starting lineup by Chloe Stapleton. A 5-foot-10 sophomore, Stapleton returned to the team in early December after being suspended for violation of academy rules.
For the most part, Pemper has relied on an eight-player rotation with Meador now the primary backcourt reserve and M.L. Morrison the top frontcourt substitute. Freshman guard Rebecca Richmond is the only other player averaging double digits for minutes.
"The league season has a life of its own and I'm really excited to see how we perform," Pemper said. "Our whole team has to play at a higher level than it has been. We have to do a better job of understanding how important possessions are late in games."
Lafayette, which has an identical 7-8 record, is led by the inside tandem of 6-foot-7 junior center Danielle Fiacco and 6-foot-3 sophomore forward Emily Homan. Those two skyscrapers combine to average 22.7 points and 16.6 rebounds.
"Lafayette is a very tough matchup inside with those two post players. They are very hard to guard," Pemper said.
PATRIOT LEAGUE POLL
Below is the Patriot League preseason poll for women's basketball with first place votes in parentheses and total votes:
1, Navy (6), 89; 2, American (1), 85; 3, Holy Cross (1), 70; 4, Army (1), 66; 5, Lehigh, 58; 6, Lafayette, 30; 7, (tie) Bucknell and Colgate, 25