As he does so often, Navy wide receiver Phil McConkey had stopped in at basketball practice to gape and admire from close range.

"Bernie's tough," McConkey said, bestowing the special stamp of approval only one athlete can award another.

McConkey's admiration encompasses more than just the player's rhythmic drive to the hoop. Bernie --full name Bernardine Boska -- and her teammates have those intangibles athletes admire most.

"These women have a lot more guts than a lot of the guys around here," said McConkey, complimenting Navy's minority within a minority -- the women's basketball team. "It's hard for them to hide. Everyone here knows who they are.

"A lot of them are a lot better than the guys around here, too. I love to watch 'em."

This season, as the women have cruised to a 9-3 record, their following at the Naval Academy has become unabashedly proud and loud. Last Year, when the first 81 women were admitted to the academy, there was resentment.

"Coming here has always been sort of a prestigious thing," said Cathy Rayhill, a two-sport sophomore from Grand Island, N.Y. "A lot of our classmates felt gypped out of their glory --the prestige, the aura of the all-male Naval Academy.

"Now I would describe them as not being overly excited that we're here. If there were one thing I could change, it would be to have everyone here look at everyone else as individuals and decide how you feel about them as a person, not as a man or a woman.

"There's a comaraderie here that you don't find on most teams. If 120 guys are looking down on you, it's good to talk to someone who's going through it. There are club sports here that are dying to go varsity, and the fact that we went varsity this year made a lot of the midshipmen mad.

"When the basketball team started last year, we were more or less told, 'Do something with this team or we won't have it anymore'."

This threat backfired as the women's team surpassed all expectations and went 10-1, causing a few blushes on the men's side, where the team finished 13-11.

While some men, like McConkey, are intrigued by the women athletes, others are turned off.

Some of those mids chose to hit the women where they are most vulnerable -- in the glamor section. These are serious women who have traded their rights to the world of frivolous fashion for black uniforms, ties and men's shoes. High-heeled shoes were abandoned when women sprained ankles moving down the halls in double time.

Women must keep their hair clipped above the bottom of the collar and are forbidden to wear cosmetics and decorative jewelry.

"All we can wear is a watch and a class ring," said one woman, pushing an illegal bracelet up her uniform sleeve.

Navy regulations do not mold women in the image of "Charlie's Angels," and some of the men have been unkind.

"One thing that bothered me is that some of them (the women) became cheerleaders and then they all quit," said McConkey. "The guys in the stands yelled at them, called them 'fat' and stuff. Probably the guys who never go out. The football team would like to see the cheerleaders back."

McConkey said the football players support the women athletes in particular "because we have common interests, I guess.

"Maybe some of the guys feel intimidated by them. But we have enough to worry about without worrying about the girls."

Of the 4,300 midshipmen presently enrolled, 145 are women, so varsity team competition is offered to them in only volleyball, basketball and fencing. There is a junior-varsity-level women's swim team, women on the sailing team and a female-powered shell on the jayvee crew team.

The volleyball team has won Maryland titles in each of its two years, capturing Division B last year as a junior varsity squad and winning the Division A tournament this year. The Middies posted a 26-9 record, powered by the spikes of Rayhill, Kathy Walsh and Susan Stapler, known around campus as the Three Musketeers.

They also play on the basketball team. Walsh, 5-foot-8 forward, is the leading scorer (17.8) and rebounder (11.9). Broska, a plebe from Alexandria, is rapidly gaining repute as the exceptional talent on the squad, steping into a starting role and averaging 17.2 points and 11.7 rebounds a game. She is so dominating that she plays center, even though she is only 5-9. Rayhill, 5-11. swings from forward to center and scores at a 12.0 pace.

Peggy Feldman constituted a one-woman swim team last year and placed Navy 13th among 48 teams competing in the women's Eastern collegiate championship, setting meet records in the 200-yard individual medley (2:11.1) and the 400-yard IM (4:38.1).

Following her feats, Feldman was carried around the midshipman's ward room on the shoulders of her classmates -- a show of appreciation that has been accorded astronauts and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach.

Feldman is in great physical condition, strong and broad through the shoulders, and has an unbridled spirit. "She reported in great shape," said Assistant Swim Coach Bob Thompson. "She made a lot of the boys look like doggie paddlers."

She chipped a few other fragile egos during the plebe physical fitness tests, finishing 68th in the class of 1,200. There was some mumbling when she performed 95 situps in two minutes, and more commentary when she became the first woman to receive (and often wear) a block "N" sweater.

"Guys really did a double-take when I first wore my sweater. They could not believe I had one," said Feldman. "The guys in my company used to force me to wear it.

"I think athletics have helped me be accepted, because I can keep up and do everything."

All midshipmen live in one huge dormitory. Women live next door to men (rooms have individual sinks and showers).

Feldman compares the overall situation to "putting some girls in a fraternity house." Of last year's original 81, 19 quit. The ones who remain are happy.

The passing of the first grueling year has transformed the woman midshipman from an outsider to one of the guys. But being "one of the guys" can limit your social life.

The biggest social events on campus are the dances held at the Disco Dahlgren in Dahlgren Hall. Women from all over the area attend. Who could blame a woman middle for feeling a little out of it wearing the required naval uniform while other women are made up, coiffed and dressed like cover girls?

"They don't ship guys in," Feldman said. "You don't meet many civilian guys. If you go out with guys, you go out with middies. And they really hear about it. It's a tricky situation."

"I don't know of any steadies," said Boska. "When we get town liberty on Saturday, we usually just go out with our roommates. We look at magazines at the Hallmark shop and go to Burger King. During the summer, the tourists would just stare. After you walked by, you could hear them say, "There goes a woman middie.'"

Boska is good-natured and pleasant, content for the moment to play pickup basketball with the many men around campus who ooze admiration for her.

"I haven't worn a dress since Christmas," said Boska. Then she laughed. "It's funny when you think about it. We're allowed to have two pairs of civilian hose, one pair of civilian socks, a pant-suit, two shirts, one sweater and we can wear T-shirts in the halls. They even issue us nighties that look like bags. As the years go by, maybe they'll realize that makeup and earrings are not as dastardly as they thought."

The first women entering the academy, the Class of 1980, are markedly different from this year's plebe women. The first group was interviewed nearly to death by the media -- in between studies, drills and the constant watch of the academy's curious microscopic eye.

They circled their wagons and still share a family closeness that has not been needed by this year's plebes. Rayhill said, "I was shocked to hear that all the women plebes don't know each other."

The eye of the media left its imprint on the first class, and some of them now bristle at the question they've heard hundreds of times: Why are you here?

The question is twofold for an aspiring woman athlete, who could devote more energy to her sport at a major college, where scholarships have finally become available.

'My swimming coach told me to think about North Carolina State or Alabama," said Feldman, who rose to local fame in San Antonio, swimming for a military club. "I don't really like the fact that I've de-emphasized my swimming. I don't put in as good workouts because I just don't have enough time. In high school, swimming was all there was. But I can't swim all my life. I have to do something else.

"I'm not real sure why I came here. I always say it's because my dad was in the Air Force. But that's not it. I guess I was awed by it. This is the only place I applied.

"I think people thought that every single girl came here to find a husband."

Rayhill dismisses that ancient theory, as well as the modern one that says women middies are upstarts looking for a point to prove.

"The women here have a strong commitment to a good education and a career," said Rayhill, who was her high school's athlete of the year.

"The goal you have must not be to just knock down barriers. "I'm not here just to be first. If I came here to be first, I couldn't put up with it.

"I know what I'm doing and how I'm doing. I only compare my accomplishments with what I expect from myself, and if people say I don't deserve the right to be here, I don't care. My goal is my own personal jurisdiction. I'm proving myself as a midshipman. I don't have to prove myself as a woman. That comes naturally."

Stapler, a 5-9 forward on the basketball team, said politely but firmly, "I really didn't want to do this interview. We really don't have any special reasons why we came here. I wanted to meet new people. I went to high school in Midland, Tex., and it seemed like my whole senior class was being transported to Texas A&M.

"I just felt like I wasn't doing anything. I wanted to make something out of my life."

Head Basketball Coach Dave Smalley knows as well as anyone the character of the women on his team.

"Whenever you are a pioneer, you have to be a little special." said Smalley. "They walked in here knowing they were breaking down tradition.They didn't fully comprehend all the different things that would happen. They just knew it would be tough.

"When the first women came in here, it was generally thought they had been given a special place. There had to be resentment. The men didn't like this. Frankly, I'm surprised we played as well as we did. I've been told it's worse at West Point."

Smalley had his own barrier to overcome at the time. He had been fired as Navy's men's coach after 10 years and was asked to stay on and coach the women.

"There's no question that there's more prestige with the men. Initially, it was a letdown," said Smalley. "I had to readjust my thinking.Missing the big time of men's basketball doesn't bother me. At least, it doesn't now.

"I have two active daughters who I would like to see become more than cheerleaders. I have nothing against cheerleading, but if nothing else is available, that's very wrong.

"I find the women very receptive to coaching. You can almost see their improvement each week. I see nothing but good things ahead for the women."

Smalley's assistant, Lt. Barbara Vittitoe, is an occasion victim of male-female tension. "You go through stages," said Vittitoe, "when you want to check out before coming back and getting your guard up. People still brag about being a male chauvinist. But no one wears a T-shirt that says I am a racist.'"

Vittitoe says the team "was forced to grow up quick. They had to prove themselves and they've done it, more than people expected.

"At first there was resentment. This year, we have a cheering section.

They (the women players) are different. Maybe that's what makes them exciting."