Back in January 1996, Becky Dowling, then a sophomore, was performing like an All-League forward for the Navy women's basketball team, averaging 18.1 points and 9.1 rebounds.
Playing against archrival Army, she soared for a rebound, collided with a rival and fell awkwardly to the floor, twisting her left knee.
It would be diagnosed as a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament, an injury that would sideline Dowling for the rest of the season, probably costing the Midshipmen a run at the Patriot League title.
"It was like my life was over," recalled Dowling, now the senior captain and the unquestioned leader of the 9-3 Mids. "Everything I do is physical, whether it's jumping, running or playing some kind of game."
After the initial shock, she dedicated herself to rehabbing her knee and returning to the team her junior year.
"I never doubted that I'd be back," she said, "but I learned not to take anything for granted."
If anything, Dowling, a preseason choice for Player of the Year honors, has improved her overall game this season. She leads the team in scoring (15.1), rebounding (10.5) and assists (2.6).
At different times in her college career, the native of Longview, Wash., has been asked to play every position.
"Even point guard," she said, laughing. "But as soon as I start dribbling the ball, coach [Joe] Sanchez starts screaming, "Pass it! Pass it!"
Said Sanchez, who has posted a 64-28 record in his three-plus years at the Academy: "I never doubted she'd be back. Becky is a determined young lady with tremendous desire and leadership ability. The main thing about an ACL injury is the mental aspect. You've just got to go out there and play. But Becky has true grit."
For Dowling, sports and competition is the fiber that binds her close-knit family. Her father, Dave, had a brief fling as a major-league pitcher for the Cardinals and Cubs in the mid-60s ("He still talks about holding Pete Rose to 1-for-4."). Becky's older sister, Jenny, was a member of the World Cup crew team, winning medals in three different events.
Jenny's example only pushed Becky harder to excel. In her early teens, she proved a natural in softball and soccer but did not begin to take basketball seriously until becoming an eighth-grader.
"Nothing came natural to me," she said. "I had a real problem dribbling the ball and shooting anything but layups. But my father always pushed me to accept a challenge. The only thing I really had going for me was my work ethic. I guess it was the Lord's will that I turned to basketball."
By the time her family enrolled her at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., Becky was a skillful player. As a senior, she scored more than 1,500 points and was named the New England Player of the Year.
Also an outstanding student, Becky was recruited by Harvard, Princeton and Stanford, which had been at the top of her wish list. Out of curiosity, Dowling accepted an invitation to visit Annapolis.
"No one in my family had a military background," she said. "But I was totally awed seeing the Academy for the first time. I had never seen that many people in uniform before."
Once she committed to Navy, her family gave her its unconditional support.
"They would have supported me if I'd elected to go to school in Africa," Dowling joked.
She has never regretted her decision despite the unusual rigors of service life combined with demanding academics and varsity athletics.
"It's as hard as you make it," Dowling said. "But I've never had any real problems. You're more visible as an athlete, but the football players and players on the men's basketball team have been like big brothers to me, easing the way."
Dowling was recruited by Sanchez's predecessor, Debra Schlegal, but by the time she arrived on campus, Sanchez was in command.
"My only problem with Becky that first year was wondering where to play her," Sanchez said. "At 5-11, she'd basically been a post-up player in prep school, but I felt with her athleticism, she'd be more effective on the perimeter. At different times, though, she's filled every role for me.
"The best thing about Becky is that she knows her limitations. But what she does well, she does extremely well."
Like rebounding. Sanchez has no qualms about matching Dowling with players 2 or 3 inches taller.
"She has great hands. I've seen her grab rebounds with one hand," Sanchez said. "But she has a great knack for sealing off her opponent when she's going after the ball. You really can't teach that."
Dowling credits Sanchez for constantly pushing her to the limits of her ability.
"I tell people, 'I play coach's position,' or wherever he thinks I'll do the most good. But he always wants me in position to rebound."
The combination of high-scoring center Adria Schneck and Dowling led Navy to a record 22 victories last season, but the Mids lost to Lehigh in the second round of the Patriot League tournament.
Schneck, who averaged 17.6 points, has graduated. But Dowling is now surrounded by a veteran cast that includes senior point guard Joanne Groth, junior center Laurie Coffey, fast-improving sophomore Erica Hayes and promising freshmen Felicia Harris and Mandy Stephan.
"I believe we have the talent this year not only to win the conference, but also to make some noise in the NCAA tournament," Dowling said.
But Dowling will have to show the way.
"My role as captain is more defined now that Adria is gone," she said. "The other players look to me for more than points and rebounds. Sometimes, I wish I was 6-3. That would make it a lot easier. But that would take all the fun and hard work out of it, wouldn't it?"
Pub Date: 1/03/98