Of the six teams in the NCAA tournament for the first time, Navy might have the most incredible journey to making the tournament. And it’s a little surprising it didn’t come earlier.
As freshmen in 2015, the current senior class played heavily for the Mids. The team started 2-19, but finished the year going 8-1. Since then, Navy has won 66 games and — finally — a conference championship.
That conference championship came with a first-year coach who replaced the NCAA’s all-time winningest coach, Larry Bock.
“It was really challenging for us to play through that  season because it was just really demoralizing,” said senior defensive specialist Darby Minton. “I think having that season as our fire and the burn, that really set us to work so much harder to make sure we had a great season every season and set this program up for success.”
The Mids (23-8) play the Michigan Wolverines (22-9) in the first round of the tournament in Pittsburgh on Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Here are three things you should know about Navy and how they accomplished what no other team in its program history had ever done.
How Navy got here
Navy shared the regular-season Patriot League crown with American and earned the No. 2 seed in the Patriot League tournament. The Mids defeated Loyola Maryland in four sets in the semifinals, then co-champ American in a thrilling five-set final.
The Mids have won at least 20 games in three straight seasons and lost in the championship final to American in 2017, which set the stage for this senior class to win the program’s first-ever Patriot League title this year.
Welcome to the dance! 💃
— NCAA Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) November 27, 2018
“When my class committed here … we had talked about how we were going to win a Patriot League championship and that’s what we wanted to do,” senior middle blocker Katie Patrick said. “And I think we all knew we could do it.”
There still needed to be tangible evidence before then that they could achieve those goals, however. Minton said their win last season against American in the regular season — the first since 1989 — and eight sweeps in conference plays this season gave the team the confidence it needed to unseat the five-time reigning tournament champions.
Defense to offense
Navy ranks 25th in the nation in opponent hitting percentage, in large part due to two standout seniors in the back row — Minton and libero Sydney Shearn, 2016 Patriot League libero of the year.
Still, as good as the back row is, a team needs a setter capable of making any play. Navy has that in three-time Patriot League setter of the year Patricia Mattingly.
Navy won’t blow anyone away with their hitting numbers. The Mids hit just .148 in the Patriot League final. But their blocking has taken a step up this year, which Minton said has allowed her and Shearn to be in the perfect position to deliver precise passes to Mattingly to transition quickly from defense to offense.
“I would say that has been our biggest improvement in the past year or two has just been the speed of our game and being able to play off of each other,” Shearn said.
— Navy Volleyball (@NavyVolleyball) November 26, 2018
Because of this, Patrick has been more involved in plays this year, which has led to another year of 200-plus kills and a hitting percentage over .320.
“We’ve always been a defense-oriented team and it really frustrates other teams when they’re going and going and going and not getting the ball down,” she said. “We’re not the biggest team in the whole world, but the more chances you get to swing at the ball, the more chances you’re going to have to put it down.”
The matchup: Navy vs. Michigan
The Mids offense has become more dynamic this season with the emergence of outside hitter Maddi Sgattoni. After eclipsing 300 kills as a freshman last season, the sophomore is nine kills shy of breaking 400 this year. She’s coming off a 25-kill performance against American. She’ll need another huge match against the Wolverines.
Navy will have to slow down Wolverines’ outsides Carly Skjodt, who finished fourth in the Big Ten in kills per set, and freshman Paige Jones.
There’s no doubt this season has already been a success for the Mids. But this senior class — the one that is the winningest class in program history; the one that lost in the conference final only to win its first the following year with a first-year coach; the one that features future Navy and Marine Corps pilots Taylor Holland, Kelsey Kingsland, Mattingly and Shearn, a future Marine Corps member in Minton and a Navy surface warfare officer in Patrick — has had too great of a career not to set another program first.
“We’re definitely ready to be competitors this weekend,” Patrick said.