MISSION FIRST: The First Family Of Army Tennis




Dec. 11, 2013

by Pamela Flenke

The 2011-12 season marked the first time in nearly a decade that the West Point tennis courts were void of a Houghton family member. Kate, John, Rick and Annie Houghton had ruled the Army courts the previous eight years. Together they combined for more accolades, records and accomplishments than any other family before them. And it's hard to imagine any family lineage coming close to matching the legacy created by the Houghtons any time soon.

The Houghton family accomplishments span the tennis courts, the classroom and United States Corps of Cadets. By the numbers, the four Houghton siblings have combined for 253 team victories, 198 singles wins, 166 doubles wins, 13 marks that list in Army's record books and three that rank at No. 1, in addition to 10 Patriot League team titles, 10 NCAA berths, seven All-Patriot League certificates, six 20-win seasons, five Player of the Month awards, four Black Knight Awards, three conference Player of the Year citations, three Academic Honor Roll certificates, three team captains, two league tournament Most Valuable Players, two Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) regional rankings, one conference Rookie of the Year citing, one Rotary Scholarship recipient, one Rhodes Scholar candidate, two U.S. Army captains and two first lieutenants.

The children of Steve, an attorney, and Mary, an assistant U.S. Attorney, each member of the Houghton clan picked up tennis rackets in their hometown of Sewickley, Pa., a small suburb of Pittsburgh, at an early age thanks to their father's influence. The Houghton patriarch played tennis in high school and encouraged the kids to play, unbeknownst to him that he and Mary were raising some of the most successful cadet-athletes West Point would ever experience.

The three older Houghton children were bitten by the "tennis bug" by around the age of eight, while Annie, the youngest, caught on to the sport by age four. They would all go on to be mentored by Quaker Valley High School coach Ed Perry, a retired colonel who first introduced the idea of serving their country to a family which had no previous military ties.

"Coach Perry was a terrific influence on our kids," says Steve. "We knew about West Point, we knew a little bit about it, but we hadn't really discussed it much before coach Perry came on board. He encouraged Kate to check it out, she had been intrigued by the school at first solely based on academics and not for tennis. Once she visited, she just loved the place.

"West Point knocks anyone over, it's just such an extraordinary place," continues Steve. "As parents, we felt great about Kate going to West Point. We felt it was a terrific privilege; the calling to serve our country was great. With my wife being an Assistant U.S. Attorney, we have a great commitment to government service, so the opportunity for our kids to attend West Point was welcomed."

But Kate's plan to attend the U.S. Military Academy got derailed for a year after suffering a knee injury which required surgery prior to the start of Cadet Basic Training. Kate delayed her enrollment until the fall of 2003, when she would be joined by younger brother, John. Kate attended Western Reserve Academy outside of Cleveland, Ohio, enhancing her already impressive academic transcripts with Advanced Placement classes in calculus and chemistry, while strengthening her knee in order to take the courts at Army's Lichtenberg and Malek Tennis centers.

Meanwhile, back in Sewickley, John and Rick were helping Quaker Valley win the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state championship while Annie was about to gear up for her first year of high school. John, who was listed as No. 4 singles player in the Middle States region and 80th nationally, decided to join Kate as a member of West Point's Class of 2009. Kate, who had played on the boys' team at Quaker Valley at the No. 2 spot, was eager to get back to tennis as well as reunite with a family member.

"We're a really close-knit family," explains Kate. "I considered [being delayed a year] a blessing in disguise because then John and I got to be classmates for the first time at West Point. It was so nice. We studied a lot together when we had the same core classes. It was nice going through the experience with a sibling."

Both Houghtons hit the ground running in their first seasons at the Academy, with John ranking second on the men's team in singles wins and Kate ranking as the second-best among "Plebes" on the women's team behind Alie del Moral, who still holds the Army record for single-season victories.

The following two years (2005 and 2006) saw both Army tennis teams gain automatic bids to the NCAA Championships. While John earned a host of Patriot League honors, Kate's seasons were cut short due to injury. Back home in Sewickley, Annie became the first girl to win a Pennsylvania boys' singles district championship (2005) and Rick was getting ready to become the third Houghton to embark on a West Point career.

Rick, always the intellectual member of the group, established himself more in the classroom than on the tennis courts. A three-time Patriot League honor roll selection, Rick's tennis career was limited due to injury, but he performed exceptionally in the classroom. A Rhodes Scholarship candidate, he would go on to graduate from West Point with honors and accept a Rotary Scholarship, which gave him the opportunity to complete a master's degree in history at the prestigious University of Oxford in England.

With the youngest member of the Houghton family making her college decision in the spring of 2007, John and Kate were tabbed team captains. Kate and the Army women won their third straight conference title, while John, Rick and the Army men came up short in the title match against arch-rival Navy.

Despite interest from numerous colleges, Annie chose to extend the Houghton family's run along the banks of the Hudson by choosing to attend West Point. Kate and John would be around for Annie's freshman year at the Academy, serving as athletic interns before reporting to duty.

Annie would go on to become the most decorated tennis player in Army history, men's or women's. In 2011, she graduated with the Army records for career singles wins, single-season dual wins and career wins at No. 1, while also listing among the best in single-season wins in doubles and singles, as well as career doubles victories. She is the only three-time Patriot League Player of the Year in conference history, as well as the first to be named Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season. Annie is also the only women's tennis player in program history to garner a regional ranking by the ITA, after being tabbed No. 20 in the Northeast singles poll in April 2010.

Six years after graduating, Capt. Kate Houghton is stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., after serving tours in both Iraq and Korea in the Medical Services branch.

John, branching Air Defense Artillery (ADA), left the Academy with a trio of marks that rank in the Army men's tennis record book. He stands 12th in career singles wins, 16th in single-season wins, and 11th in career doubles victories. He served three years in Germany at Kaiserslautern, while also being deployed to Israel and Poland. Currently, Capt. John Houghton is stationed at Fort Sill, Okla.

After completing his degree at Oxford, 1st Lt. Rick Houghton also branched ADA and is serving in Kaiserslautern following a stint in Poland.

After serving as the women's tennis athletic intern for most of the 2011-12 season, 2nd Lt. Annie Houghton, who branched Adjutant General, joined her older sister at Fort Lewis and has since been promoted to first lieutenant.

With all four of their kids now graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, Steve and Mary Houghton look at the experience they shared with their children with nothing but pride.

"With tennis, all four of them had very different abilities and skills, but they all really enjoyed working and playing for teams under head coaches Paul Peck and Jim Poling," says Steve. "They have been terrific influences on our children. The thing that impressed us as parents was they both have terrific Army service records -- coach Poling in Vietnam and coach Peck in the Gulf War. They're both decorated soldiers. To us, that meant everything.

"The credibility that brings to their role as coaches at West Point just can't be beat. You don't see it in every sport, but in tennis at West Point there are coaches who have served their country and have the leadership training through the military and have contributed in a big way. I can't say enough about that.

"They say, `Those who can't do, teach,' but at West Point, `Those who have done, teach.' Our children came away with such humility and understanding thanks to the continued development of character and leadership. Those intangibles somehow become tangible when you go to West Point."

Tune in tomorrow for CW5 DAN AND JANE JOLLOTA: Flying Below The Radar.

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