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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Cummings

NAVY's Jennifer Coleman is all Patriot

When basketball players recall the greatest moments of their careers, bank shots rarely make the list. For the U.S. Naval Academy’s Jennifer Coleman, a bank shot from a difficult angle is the undisputed frontrunner. The circumstances of this basket were exceptional.

Navy was seeded eighth in the Patriot League Championship, the final one of Coleman’s career. The Mids trailed top-seeded Holy Cross by two points with less than one second on the clock in the quarterfinal game.

The tension in Holy Cross’ Hart Center was palpable. Would the unlikeliest of upsets knock off the top-seeded home team on the final possession?

Navy’s Mimi Schrader took a deep breath before inbounding to the obvious choice: Coleman, the senior backbone of the team. As soon as she caught it, Coleman launched a one-legged fadeaway from the corner, watching the ball bank in off the glass for the 50-49 upset victory.

This buzzer beater cemented Coleman’s place in Navy women’s basketball history. In mid-March, she was selected an honorable mention All-American by The Associated Press. Coleman is the first member in the history of the Navy women's basketball program to be so honored and just the third Patriot League women’s player named All-American. Quite a capper for a career that began as a young girl.

Coleman grew up in a tight-knit family with her parents, Elsie and James, and her older sister, Jessica. She bonded with her family through athletics, and her parents encouraged her to participate in sports from a young age. She gravitated towards basketball and softball. Basketball eventually won out because she enjoyed the physicality. She was especially fond of defense and “playing like a football player and trying to pick off passes from the other team.”

Coleman started on a boys’ recreational team. Her father felt that “if she could compete against these boys, she could compete against anyone.” She competed without intimidation. She was notorious for full court pressing each possession.

When she moved on and began playing with a girls AAU team, Coleman felt out of place and questioned whether competitive basketball was her future.

After adjusting, Coleman’s love of basketball grew, and she started thinking about playing at the collegiate level. She worked extremely hard in workouts and practices to better her game, eventually earning a spot at the Naval Academy. She was excited about the opportunities offered.

“A top-notch education, the Division-I basketball, and the guaranteed job after college,” Coleman said. “What more could you want?”

Those Naval Academy opportunities came with challenges. Coleman had to balance the demands of adjusting to life as a D-I athlete with the rigorous demands of Academy life.

She was put through the wringer by the infamous “Plebe Summer” bootcamp, which lasts seven weeks and consists of rigorous physical and mental training. Along with the other “first-years,” She was subjected to regimented training, grueling shifts on watch duty, and a structured agenda that outlined her day-to-day schedule without much flexibility.

Coleman’s family was only two hours away in Richmond, Va., but longing for home was so strong they could have just as easily been halfway around the world. The homesickness was exacerbated by long periods with limited contact while out at sea for mandatory educational experiences. To make matters worse, Coleman suffered a severe concussion early in her sophomore year at the Academy that knocked her off course in both athletics and academics.

During this rough patch, Coleman relied heavily on her teammates who she describes as “being like family, always there for each other.” Their shared understanding of the unique challenges of general responsibilities, athletics and academics at the Naval Academy created an inseparable bond. Her teammates filled the familial role she longed for.

“Jennifer is super fun to be around and lights up every single space she enters,” junior Mimi Schrader, one of Coleman’s teammates, said. “She’s also the best basketball player I have ever had the opportunity of playing with.”

The Schrader-Coleman connection was evident on the game-winning shot against Holy Cross. Coleman said that her shot was made easier by Schrader’s inbounds pass that Coleman described as “absolute money."

While Coleman credits the support of her teammates for the impact and success, she has had during her Navy career, the fact is she earned it.

As a freshman, she averaged 13.1 and 8.2 rebounds per game, the team leader in both categories. That earned her a spot on the Patriot League All-Rookie team.

Navy’s next two seasons were truncated due to COVID restrictions, and the team played just 24 games Coleman’s sophomore and junior season. During her nine-game junior season, Coleman averaged 17.1 points and 11.3 rebounds. That earned her second-team all-Patriot League.

Coleman was disappointed. She believed she had played well enough to be selected to the first team. It was a repeat of a previous disappointment. As a high school senior in 2017-18, she led her team in nearly every statistical category, but she was not selected to the all-metro team. That snub had driven her to a summer of hard work that resulted in her outstanding freshman season at Navy.

Feeling crushed and defeated, she called her dad to dump a load of frustration.

“I was allowed to vent for a brief period before we transitioned into assessing the options,” she said.

Option A: Allow the defeat and frustration to overcome her and accept that she would never be recognized as a 1st-team player.

Option B: Work harder, turn the frustration into fuel and improve so drastically that there would be no doubts that she was among the league’s best.

She went into the summer before her senior year with an inextinguishable fire to get better and prove any doubters wrong. The summer, though, delivered one challenge she knew was coming and another that was unexpected.

Her Academy training required that she spend a large portion of the summer in the middle of the ocean for naval training. She made the best with what she had. When she was not learning or working, she was in the ship’s gym, working tirelessly to get stronger, faster, and more agile as the boat rocked.

When she was back on land, she met with her coaches, and together, they decided to take a huge risk: completely change her shooting form. She trusted the process and reaped the benefits by putting up her best offensive numbers to date.

In her final season, the 5-foot-9 Coleman was a dominant two-way force. She led the Patriot League with 22.2 points per game. Beyond scoring points, Coleman also created offensive opportunities for her teammates averaging a team-best 4.8 assists per game. Coleman also defended tenaciously racking up an average 2.8 steals and 10.7 rebounds per game.

All those numbers added up. Not only did she earn the coveted 1st team all-league honors she longed for but was named the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year.

For everything that Coleman has accomplished, she says, “I owe it all to my family.”

Her parents played a huge role in her athletic development. Her father James was always there with an impressive basketball IQ to push and challenge her, but he was also her loudest supporter. Her mother Elsie played a softer role, reigning her father in when he got a bit too riled up, and reinforcing Coleman’s love for the game at every step of the way.

Her sister Jessica was, and continues to be her rock, sticking up for Coleman from when she was playing with boys who hated losing to her, to being there if she has a tough day in college, Coleman has a special bond with her family that she cherishes more than any game, experience, or buzzer-beating game-winner.

Coleman’s father describes her as “an absolute joy who loves competition and dominates the court.”

She demonstrated her drive, tenacity, and spirit at the Naval Academy and on the court, securing a place in the basketball program’s history.

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