Guards Kara Pollinger and Alix Membreno and forwards Jade Geif and Audrey Bauer have been starters for the Navy women's basketball program since early during their college careers.
That core group of seniors has led Navy to the only NCAA tournament appearances of the school's 36-year history of women's basketball. Geif has already passed the career 1,000-point mark, and Membreno, Bauer and Pollinger are also on pace to join the club this season. Geif is the third-leading rebounder in Navy history, and needs 32 more to set the all-time record. Pollinger and Membreno will finish in the school's top 10 in career assists.
"It's invaluable to have so many seniors," Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper said. "This is a luxury that we haven't had before."
Another strong start has the Midshipmen in position to capture their fourth consecutive Patriot League title and another automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. With four straight victories and seven wins during its last eight games, Navy takes an 11-3 overall record and 3-0 conference mark into a Jan. 11 Patriot League clash with archrival Army.
The effective and balanced starting lineup of four seniors and one junior is one of the main reasons the Midshipmen could extend their Patriot League title run. The five starters' points-per-game averages range from 8.9 to 14.4.
Pollinger and Geif have been crucial to Navy's past success, and their continued production will be the key to its postseason hopes. A 5-foot-7, two-year captain, Pollinger leads the team in scoring, while the 6-foot Geif paces Navy in rebounding and is the squad's second-leading scorer.
"The thing that stands out about Kara is her skill at the offensive end," Pemper said. "She can go to the basket, pull up for a jumper and dish the ball. Jade is such a worker inside, a great combination of quickness and grace. Not many players can handle contact as well as she does, but she has led our team in taking charges for the last four years."
Pollinger and Geif are far from the whole story. Bauer averages 10.0 points per game; junior guard Chloe Stapleton averages 9.7 points per game; and Membreno, who is Navy's assists leader, might be the Midshipmen's unsung hero.
Navy's balanced attack, which includes an average of 9.7 3-pointers per game, has been a headache for opponents. The Midshipmen's team defense has helped shape their season. Navy is surrendering 58.4 points per game.
"We've always been near the top in defense," said Pemper, now in her sixth year at Navy. "Army has been good in that aspect, too. Maybe there's something to the service academies being strong defensively."
Even a long layoff hasn't slowed Navy's progress. Before a 70-50 win against Boston University Jan. 8, the Midshipmen had played three games during a 33-day span. But Pemper said she wasn't worried about her team getting rusty.
"We've only played three games in a month, but we've played well," Pemper said. "The Marshall game (a 72-68 Navy win following a 23-day layoff) was the best we've played all year. We saw what a veteran team can do."
The Midshipmen will need to be at their best Jan. 11, when an 11-3 Army team visits Alumni Hall. With 3-0 conference marks, Navy and Army are tied with Holy Cross for the Patriot League lead.
"Any game with Army is important," said Pemper, whose team lost twice to the Cadets last winter. "There are very few schools that have such a strong rival, and we get a lot more attention on campus when we beat Army."
The days of competing against Army and the rest of the Patriot League are getting shorter for Navy's seniors, who will have one more opportunity to win a conference title and play in the NCAA tournament.
"What these women have done is incredible," Pemper said. "Most people don't realize that we have three of the four closest losses of any Patriot League team that has ever played in the tournament."