By Tracy Nelson
When Kate, John and Annie Houghton sat down on the couch to talk shop and catch up with one another last fall, it was as if it was a typical day with your brother or sister. The only difference is that this gathering took place at the Lichtenberg Tennis Center at West Point, N.Y., and not in the living room of their Sewickley, Pa., home.
The Houghtons have all been significant contributors to the Black Knights’ men’s and women’s tennis programs since the first two, Kate and John, arrived at West Point in the summer of 2003. The men’s and women’s tennis teams have won a combined five (two men’s, three women’s) Patriot League titles.
Two years behind John and Kate, younger Rick is a junior on the men’s team and took the opportunity to study abroad in Lille, France for the fall semester, thus missing this interview. That is the furthest any one of these four siblings has ever been apart. Kate and John were commissioned in May, stayed at West Point through the fall in an Athletic Intern capacity and are now out serving in the “Big Army.” Meanwhile, younger sister Annie is at the tail end of her plebe year at West Point and in the middle of a stellar freshman season on the tennis court.
Four Houghton children have passed through the gates of West Point and picked up a racquet for the Black Knights, but more importantly, all four are proud and ready to serve their country.
The Houghtons grew up in a small suburb of Pittsburgh, Pa., with a tennis court practically in their back yard. Not unlikely, the quartet learned to play the game at an early age at the country club down the street, an environment ideal for honing their skills.
Their dad, Stephen, played tennis in high school and encouraged his sons and daughters to take a crack at the sport. Little did he know that it would result in four Division I tennis players attending one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the nation.
“Dad used to hit with us and teach us how to swing the racquet, but when I was around eight I started to realize that this was something I wanted to continue,” John said. Kate concurred, but said that the youngest, Annie, caught the tennis bug hard when she was four.
For Stephen and his wife, Mary, the situation is ideal. They pop a book-on-tape in the car and make the seven-hour trek across Pennsylvania and into New York for as many Army matches as they possibly can.
“We’re a really close-knit family,” Kate said. “I think I’ve grown closer with my siblings and really developed deeper friendships with them since coming here. We look out for each other and help one another out.”
Kate, 23, is the oldest of the bunch by one year and was the first to express an interest in the Academy. She was accepted into the Class of 2006, but just weeks before reporting to BEAST barracks, initial training that each cadet must pass before their first academic year, Kate tore her left ACL for the third time and had her fourth surgery in four years. Playing tennis that fall did not seem like a viable option. Instead, head women’s coach Paul Peck suggested that Kate attend a civilian prep school, Western Reserve Academy, in Hudson, Ohio, for a year and continue to rehab. Due to circumstance, Kate and John started at the Academy during the same year.
“I considered it a blessing in disguise because then John and I got to be classmates for the first time here at West Point,” Kate said. “It was so nice. We studied a lot together, especially plebe (freshman) and yuck (sophomore years when we had the same core classes. It was nice going through the experience with a sibling, and literally at the same time.”
Two years later, the opportunity knocked for Rick to attend the Academy that he had grown to know through visits with his older siblings. Finally, Annie completed the package last July. By the time she is commissioned, a Houghton sibling will have been playing tennis at West Point for seven straight years.
In a family with no prior military ties, it seems rather unlikely that all four siblings would choose a service academy over another civilian institution. It makes a lot more sense, however, when you factor in the Houghton’s high school tennis coach, Ed Perry, who is a retired colonel, was happy to step in.
Perry saw the potential in each of the Houghton children and their ability to make good officers. After spending just five minutes with each of them, it becomes abundantly clear that each of them values family and leadership above all else.
John and Rick were both standouts for Perry, helping Quaker Valley to a PIAA State Championship in 2003. Kate and Annie competed with great success on both the girls’ and boys’ teams at different points during their respective careers. Kate played No. 2 on the boys’ team, while Annie played in the top flight and went on to become the first female to ever win a Pennsylvania boys’ singles tennis district championship in May of 2005. Annie had also won the WPIAL district Class AA girls’ championship in 2003 and 2004, while also winning the state Class AA girls’ title in 2004.
Both Kate and John noted that it has been a unique experience watching Rick and Annie go through everything that they went through as plebes four years ago.
“Kate and I were a little culture shocked when we first got here, but I think Annie and Rick have adapted a lot easier since they knew the lifestyle after watching us go through it,” John, a three-time All-Patriot League honoree, said.
“John and Annie have always been outstanding, natural talents,” said Kate, who continued to battle endlessly with knee problems throughout much of her West Point career. “Their game is amazing. Rick is a very solid player, but his strength really is his brilliance and passion for academics.”
When Rick returned from France in time for the spring, Annie had quickly become the Black Knights’ No. 1 singles and doubles player on a talented Army team that will be vying for a fourth straight conference title and NCAA bid. After taking the fall season to adjust to the collegiate level, Annie has produced a 15-5 spring record and is currently tied for sixth in Army history with 13 dual-match singles wins at No. 1.
There’s the clich that “the family that plays together stays together.” The Houghtons could not make that statement any truer even if they tried.
“While we all came to West Point for the academics, we are all going to leave as well-rounded leaders,” Kate said. “That’s something to be proud of, but it’s even better knowing that we got to do it together.”
“My family members are my best friends,” Annie added. “If I ever need something, they’re right here and vice versa. Being at West Point teaches you to value and appreciate your family more than anything in the world.”
Although Kate and John left West Point in January, the foursome still keeps in contact as much as possible and are no doubt rooting one another on. Kate, who branched Life Science at the Academy, completed her Officer Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston in Texas in early April and will start her assignment in Korea immediately. John is on his way from Fort Sill, Okla., to El Paso, Texas for his BOLC III training for Air Defense Artillery. His is then scheduled to begin a three-year stint in Kaiserslautern, Germany in September. Rick and Annie will have at least one more year together at West Point, but surely the Houghton name will by synonymous with Army tennis for years beyond their departure.
Tracy Nelson is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.