Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo is no stranger to pressure. He stepped firmly into a magnified situation last year - replacing Paul Johnson and his 45-29 record in Annapolis - and succeeded, leading the Midshipmen to eight wins and their sixth straight Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.
But perhaps no game since the EagleBank Bowl will cause more anxiety for Niumatalolo than Friday’s women’s lacrosse national semifinal between No. 3 North Carolina and No. 2 Maryland, for which his daughter, Alexcia, is a starting defender.
“The games are starting to get a lot more nerve-racking,” the coach said. “In the first and second round of the postseason, I started to feel it. Back in the regular season, I wasn’t as nervous for her. But I’m starting to get more and more nervous because I know she wants to be on a championship team.”
Alexcia Niumatalolo is the oldest of Ken and wife Barbara’s three children. As a former Division I quarterback and aspiring coach, Ken was eager to raise athletic children. So when Alexcia showed an affinity for sports at a young age, father and daughter forged a relationship that set the foundation for her prowess.
“I didn’t want to push her, but I wanted her to play sports,” Ken said. “Thankfully for her, she enjoyed it. She enjoyed playing basketball and soccer and always wanted a ball in her hands. … She was always very athletic, even at a young age - things kind of came naturally to her.”
Alexcia didn’t start playing lacrosse until her freshman year at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, but the fundamentals Ken helped develop at home laid the foundation for her future success.
It wasn’t just X’s and O’s. The fuel for Ken’s coaching is his desire to win - friends and associates echo that he is the most competitive person they know - a trait that wasn’t lost on Alexcia during their driveway training sessions.
“He would coach me all the time and set up drills for me,” she said. “Everything with him was always competition.”
Once she got to high school, it didn’t take long for Alexcia to discover her lacrosse talent. She said her basketball experience, which helped develop her hand-eye coordination and familiarity with running and defending set plays, helped ease the transition. That, combined with her natural speed, eventually caught the eye of Maryland coach Cathy Reese.
“My freshman year, in the first game after I was moved up from [junior varsity] to varsity, all of a sudden my coach told me I was starting,” Alexcia said. “I figured maybe that was a good sign considering I had just picked it up.”
Ken and Alexcia’s relationship has evolved now that they are Division I head coach and athlete, with Ken still guiding his daughter however he can. Their conversations during the lacrosse season ultimately center around sports; the two discuss Alexcia’s recent performance and the adjustments she needs to make going forward.
And when Alexcia is home for the summer, Ken keeps her prepared.
“He knows what it takes to be a Division I athlete,” Alexcia said. “He knows that I have to train hard and play hard all the time. He definitely kicks my butt during the summer if I’m ever lazy.”
Ken attended several Maryland games this season - when Navy’s spring practice schedule didn’t conflict. He admires how close the Terps are with their coach, which has helped him juggle the differences between coaching the men at the academy and his daughter.
“I’ve seen him coach a few times. I know he likes to yell a lot, but he doesn’t use that with me because I don’t like yelling,” Alexcia said. “He’s actually pretty nice to me.”