Even in tennis, the rivalry between Army and Navy is a heated one. For three years, Concord High graduate Owen Bullard has been at the center of it.
Playing this season as the Midshipmen's No. 1 player, Bullard, who will be a senior in the fall, helped Navy capture its fourth straight Patriot League tournament championship. Each year, the Midshipmen defeated rival Army in the championship match, and this season Bullard was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Bullard is one of Cabarrus County's top high school tennis players of all time. From 2004-07, he had a near-perfect regular-season record playing for the Spiders and was a state-ranked juniors player. He was a four-time South Piedmont Conference Player of the Year and a three-time state tournament qualifier.
During his freshman season at the Naval Academy, Bullard broke into the starting lineup playing at the sixth flight. He led the Midshipmen with 26 victories between the fall and spring seasons and was named the Patriot League's Rookie of the Year.
The following season, Bullard teetered between No. 5 and No. 6 singles and matched his 26 wins. He said his first two years taught him how competitive college tennis is.
"The biggest difference is playing with good players on a regular basis," he said. "In high school, I didn't really have the opportunity to play guys who were (good enough) to play college tennis."
Both seasons, Bullard and the Midshipmen qualified for the NCAA tournament but were eliminated in the first round, losing at Florida and Virginia, respectively.
With three starters graduating, Bullard felt that he would be moving up in the lineup for his junior year.
Extra work last summer, his fall season performance, and his success in challenge matches against his teammates propelled Bullard to the No. 1 spot.
Bullard especially had a good April, being named the Patriot League's player of the month.
For the season, he compiled marks of 19-19 in singles and 19-14 in doubles, 13-4 with main partner Nicholas Gutsche.
One of Bullard's biggest wins was a three-setter over Army's Gary Kushnirovich in the teams' conference regular season finale. Army won the match, but Navy would get its revenge in the league tournament.
Navy advanced to the championship round with victories over Holy Cross and Bucknell.
The results of the championship match reversed themselves for Bullard. He lost his battle with Kushnirovich (in a second set tiebreaker) but Navy won the war, turning away Army 4-2 for the league title.
Bullard's combined singles and doubles record for the tournament was 5-1, good enough for MVP honors.
Afterwards, he would also be selected as first-team All-Patriot League.
"I was the tournament MVP, that was pretty cool," said Bullard.
"I felt kind of bad because I just lost my singles match, then I got the MVP award. I didn't know how to take that. I was like, 'I just lost.'"
Navy's reward for reaching the NCAA tournament was a rematch with Virginia, ranked No. 1 nationally. Bullard was unashamed to lose in straight sets to Michael Shabaz, who entered the match ranked No. 11 individually as the Cavaliers easily won 4-0. Shabaz would go on to win the NCAA doubles title with his partner.
Bullard will have an opportunity this summer that probably will be afforded no other college tennis player.
He will spend a week in July training on a Naval submarine. Then in November, members of the Naval Academy's senior class will receive their service assignments. Bullard is hoping his will be on a sub.