The Navy women's tennis team celebrated its 10th anniversary season this year, and the Midshipmen just keep getting better.
Playing for the only head coach the program has ever known, Navy set a school record for victories with 27 and rode a 15-match winning streak into a Patriot League championship loss to Army that ended its season.
"They just keep getting better and better," said U.S. Marine Corps Captain Brooke Campbell, the team's officer representative and a member of head coach Keith Puryear's first Navy team in 2008-09. "I'm proud to say that there is no way I would make the team now. They've come so far. There's no way I would even be recruited to play at this level."
Puryear has never had a down year even though he started the program from scratch as a club team in 2008 in what Campbell described as a "transition year." The Midshipmen then went 13-4 during its first varsity campaign in 2009-10. Puryear's teams posted a 67-18 record during the next three years and made three appearances in the Patriot League finals.
"I think I had some really good luck and got a really good recruiting class my first year," Puryear said. "We were able to get some players tennis teams would call sleepers, players who slipped through the cracks a little bit. They were really talented players, but also were people of great character. Now, looking back, I realize how difficult the task really was."
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics
Puryear came to Navy from UMBC, where he had played, graduated and fashioned a UMBC Athletics Hall of Fame career coaching the men's tennis team for 19 years and the women for 17. Neither he nor his family was 100 percent sure about making the move, but once he visited the Academy, the former Marine was sold.
"I was happy at UMBC," Puryear said. "We had just lost in the men's conference finals and had everyone back, and on the women's side, I believe we had lost in the finals as well. We had great teams and a great program, but when I came to Navy and interviewed for the job, I just loved it. I loved the challenge and the resources available but wasn't sure if I would get the position."
Puryear was called back in to meet with athletic director Chet Gladchuk a few days after the initial interview, and he knew: "They're going to offer me this job," he told his wife, Venida.
At that point, there was no turning back.
With his former player and UMBC assistant Alessandra Pedergnana in tow, Puryear accepted the position, and the two have formed a dynamic coaching tandem ever since. Named the America East Coaching Staff of the Year in 2008 while at UMBC, Puryear and Pedergnana have had four recruiting classes ranked nationally among NCAA Division I mid-major programs. Still, he is most thankful for that first group, which set the tone.
"As freshmen or plebes, it was so challenging for them to come in," Puryear said. "I remember looking at my lineup and having five freshmen starting. It was incredible for them to be able to handle everything they had on their plate in terms of the requirements and the commitments here and being Division I athletes. And we were beating a lot of the teams that I was beating with my established teams at UMBC. I think that was the catalyst for the success to come."
That success has been staggering. That first recruiting class capped its four years with a 25-5 mark in 2012-13, a season that included a school-record 17-match winning streak and 23 victories in the final 25 matches. Since then, Puryear's teams have posted four more seasons of 20 wins or more and made three more Patriot League finals appearances.
This year's team may have been the best -- and came the closest to capturing that elusive league title. Led by senior team captain Amanda Keller and classmates Isabel Balsavage, Carlee Conway and Claudia Mackenzie, Navy knocked off Army, 7-0, in the Star Match in Annapolis, Md., March 31 before falling to the Black Knights, 4-2, in the Patriot League finals to finish 27-6.
Keller concluded her career as the program's all-time leader in doubles wins with 71 and combined singles and doubles wins with 160. She also ranks second in career singles victories with 89. Mackenzie ranks second in doubles wins with 68 and ninth in singles victories with 55. This group of seniors recorded the program's first wins against Army, going 2-2 against the Black Knights in regular-season play.
"Every year we seem to get better and better," said Keller, who will begin training to become a Marine pilot after graduation. "We were really close [to winning the Patriot League] this year, so I don't think the team needs to make any major changes in the future. If they just keep doing what they've been doing, strive to get better every day and make the team the focus to help each other improve individually, they can go a long way."