Americas Navy Can Fight
photo by Phil Hoffmann
A swarming Navy defense tackles a Keydets player in the Midshipmens season opener two weeks ago.
But Can They Play Football?
Will this season mark a turning point for a historic program that has had its share of misery in the last 21 years?
by Louis Llovio
If the U.S. Navy fought wars like its academy for future officers has been playing football, wed all be speaking Japanese right now.
In three years the Mids have won only three of 33 games. The biggest and toughest of Navys fleet hasnt won an opening-day home game since 1990, when this years crop of seniors werent even teenagers.
On this years opening day a brutal late summer Saturday at just-reopened Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium the Mids took the opening drive only to be mired in the muck of past defeats.
On the first four plays, the 11-man offense failed to move the ball 10 yards for a first down, leaving it for defense to stop the Keydets of Virginia Military Institute.
On the sidelines, last years season-ending triumph over Army reverberated amongst the players on the day theyd see if it was skill that had led them to victory that cold December day or just a fluke.
When the offense returned to the field, they held on to last years promise.
The Mids marched down the field, led by the 25-yard-run of junior Eric Roberts, a quantitative economics major from Miami. Tony Lane, the 22-year-old slot back from Wrens, Georgia, topped off the eight-play, 65-yard drive, running 18 yards for the games first touchdown.
In celebration, the Brigade ran into the North end zone, a sea of white-uniformed plebes matching each of Navys seven points with a push-up, as tradition mandates.
Head coach Paul Johnson is the man tasked with rebuilding. The program didnt get this way overnight, and its not going to change overnight, said Johnson on taking over a team that had won one game in two years. Johnson joined Navy in 2002, after leading Georgia Southern to two conference titles.
Climbing Back One Step at a Time
2003 could be Navys year.
This season marks a turning point for a historic program that has had its share of misery in the last 21 years. Their great years ended in 1981, with the end of the era of George Welsh, the winningest coach in Navy history. In the 22 years since those glory days, the team has gone 741582. At the turn of this century, they won only one game in 20, making 20002001 the worst two years in the football programs 122-year history.
I think we won five games in my four years, said 1950-graduate Charlie Hirsch of Alexandria, shaking his head as 95-degree opening-day temperatures tested his optimism. I didnt think it could get any worse.
Johnsons assessment was right. In his first year, he doubled Navys number of wins to two in the 10-game season.
Two bright spots last year gave hope to players, fans, coaches and alumni.
On November day at the Baltimore Ravens stadium, Navy led perennial powerhouse Notre Dame 2315 with less than five minutes to play. They werent able to hang on for the victory, but the team learned that it could play with the best.
photo by Phil Hoffmann
Senior slot back Tony Lane ran 18 yards for the games first touchdown.
A few weeks later, on December 7, this years co-captain, quarterback Craig Candeto, made history scoring six touchdowns to humiliate Army 5812.
It was a good note to go out on, said Candeto, a 21-year-old senior economics major from Orange City, Floridas Deland High School. Winning in that fashion was exciting for everybody and did give us momentum going into the off-season.
I think it gave people an incentive to work harder knowing what the standard is and that we should be able to perform like that throughout the season and not just in one game.
Four Navy players were named to the Preseason All-Independent Team by Street & Smiths 2003 College Football Preview magazine. Those all-stars are senior offensive tackle Josh Goodin of Shawnee, Georgia; senior linebacker Eddie Carthan of Donaldsonville, Georgia; junior safety Josh Smith of Attica, Indiana; and senior punter John Skaggs of Cantonment, Florida.
Rungs on the Ladder of Hope
But that was then.
As the 2003 season opened, skeptics remembered that the seniors on the team had never won a home game. The Mids had won only one season-opener in five years, last year versus Southern Methodist University in Texas.
Was it post9/11 security, these doubters wondered, that kept the Brigade of Midshipmen from marching through Annapolis to open a new season in an almost new stadium? Or was the team afraid to show its face?
I know its tough for some guys to be optimistic with what the program has been through, co-captain Candeto said before the season. But I believe that we could win every game that we play. If you dont go out on the field expecting to win, you shouldnt be out there.
Opening day asked a new question: Could Navy find a way to turn that expectation into a tangible victory?
This years expectation of winning rested on more than 2002s two victories.
Safety Smith was also named the best hitter of all the Independent players, while Candeto was named the best option quarterback and the best player in pressure situations. Street & Smith also predicted Navy would flirt with winning half its games this season.
Hopes rose further when The Sporting News picked junior fullback Kyle Eckel of Havensford, Pennsylvania, as the 15th best fullback in the country and Smith as the 18th best free safety.
Nature Plays on Navys Side
Opening day opponent VMI seemed like a good team to begin the new era. Since 1898, the Keydets had lost all seven previous meetings to Navy.
Now, Navy was taking advantage of VMI again. With a 280 lead at halftime, the Mids were living up to preseason expectations.
photo by Phil Hoffmann
Senior slot back Tony Lane ran 18 yards for the games first touchdown.
But in the third quarter, the Keydets fought back, scoring a touchdown on their opening drive. Whats more, for the first time in the game, they were gaining control of Navys offense.
With 54 seconds left in the third quarter, VMI was moving toward a second score and enough momentum to carry them into the final quarter with a fighting chance at victory.
But nature was on Navys side. The oppressive heat of the day yielded to high winds. Next, a torrential downpour brought lightning so close that the game had to be suspended.
Lightning lit up the darkened sky as thunder rolled across Annapolis to the oohs and aahs of the crowd that had found shelter under the awnings and in the concourses of the renovated stadium.
Three quarters worth of trash was blown down the aisles and between seats. Out on a hill by the north end zone, cardboard boxes that kids had been using hours earlier as makeshift sleds broke apart in the wind.
In all, the suspension lasted 58 minutes.
The delay appeared to incite the remaining crowd even more, but for Navys players, who had seemed to be losing their grip on an easy victory, it had an altogether different effect.
Said Kyle Eckle, who had a career day with 129 yards and two touchdowns, about the stoppage: It calmed us down.
Sentiments shared by Candeto. I think it was good for us because we needed to definitely refocus there in that time. We kind of got into a lull in the third quarter.
After the layoff, the Mids held VMI to a three-point field goal.
The Home-Field Advantage
Whats a better way to inaugurate a new era than in a newly renovated stadium full of the hometown crowd?
You can feel the excitement among the athletes, coaches, staff, the teams that will play here and the midshipmen in general, said athletic director Chet Gladchuk. This stadium is going to be something really special for the Naval Academy, Annapolis and all our fans within the Division IA ranks.
ince the end of last years football season, $40 million has been invested in upgrading the old Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium from the outside in, transforming an antiquated complex of bricks, mortar and asphalt into a stadium within a park.
Were talking about changing a city gateway that was environmentally insensitive into something parklike with hundreds of trees, a recreational facility for all the people in Annapolis and a series of projects bioretention, drainage systems, rain gardens, ponds that catch nearly 100 percent of runoff stormwater, said Annapolis spokeswoman Jan Hardesty. City and state money helped support the new stadiums $1.2 million dollar environmentally sensitive landscaping plan.
By seasons end the complex will be lined with trees and shrubs that shade a mile-long trail connecting to the citys existing trail system.
Inside, a new design brings fans closer to the game on the field and closer to conveniences between quarters.
Navys playing field has been lowered eight feet, the sidelines moved 35 feet closer to the field and a memorial plaza built to tell the story of Navy and the Marine Corps. Concession stands and restrooms were upgraded, and new concessions and restroom buildings erected in the four corners of the stadium. To boot, 6,000 seats have been added in the end zone.
At the north end zone, by the memorial plaza, the new seats overlook a family-friendly Kid Zone behind the scoreboard. Its a section for parents who are now able to keep one eye on their kids playing and the other on the play on the field.
All together, the new stadium is a great place to play and watch a game while reflecting on the wonderful traditions and history of the Academy and Naval Services, Gladchuk said.
Playing amid so many changes, the Mids had an added incentive to inaugurate their nearly new home with a win.
Touchdown, Tailgates and Tradition
For 30,129 fans, opening day was more than just football. It lived up to the Navy marketing campaigns new motto: Touchdown, Tailgates and Tradition.
Parents and kids donned the colors of the hometown Midshipmen and waited with hopeful enthusiasm for the game, and the new season, to begin.
The crowds arrived early, firing up grills and diving into coolers hours before the 1:30 kickoff. The smell of beer, barbecues and suntan lotion seeped into the air, forcing one reveler, Charles Riley of Baltimore, to observe, This is like a day at the beach, not a football game.
photo by Phil Hoffmann
Junior fullback Kyle Eckle had a career-high 129 yards and two touchdowns in Navys win against VMI.
Not everyone shared Rileys cynicism.
This is football, one tailgater shouted to friends three cars down.
Tailgating is part of the long tradition of college football. As autumn approaches, whether the air hangs humid or turns crisp, the smell of barbecues on Saturday morning in Annapolis, and hundreds of other college towns all over the nation, become as much a mainstay as church bells on Sunday.
As far as the eye could see on this Saturday, cars, vans and motor-homes lined the rows of spaces out into the mud-soaked fields of the Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium parking lot. Tents of alumni, representing their classes, and parent groups mingled with fans who had made the drive from as far off as New York.
Even visiting VMI fans, who had sold out their 1,200 allotted tickets and brought about 400 cadets, joined in the fun outside.
But it was the blue and gold of Navy that ruled the day.
With its alumni base spread out across the world, the Naval Academy is making a particular effort to attract local fans to the games.
Players show up at local schools, talking to kids about the importance of an education and the life of a student athlete at the Academy.
When an athlete of Craig Candetos stature takes the time to speak at schools, it has an impact and creates a bond between the community at large and the Academy which, under heightened security concerns, has had to scale back its presence.
Candeto is just the type of shining example the Academy has to offer. A full-time student, Candeto takes 17 to 19 credit hours per semester and keeps his GPA hovering around 3.0 while excelling not only on the football field but as a star on the baseball team as well. The senior plans to fly F-18s after graduation and then become a youth pastor or a teacher, like his parents.
This year Candeto and Navy Athletics hope to bring the community and the team closer.
We also have done a massive marketing campaign with TV spots and radio spots, said Scott Strasemeier of Navy Athletics. We did a Meet-the-Mids event around media day and had about 2,500 kids out. We have given away 1,500 tickets to local youth organizations for the first game.
Outreach seems to be working, Strasemeier said:
We had 30,000 at the game Saturday, which is remarkable for a school that has only 4,000 students, with alumni scattered all over the world. A lot of that support comes from Annapolis, Baltimore, Washington.
One and Zero: A Winning Streak Begins
As opening days final quarter began, Kyle Eckle took over, rushing for 49 yards and driving Navy to the two yard line, where Candeto snuck in for his second touchdown of the day, knocking the proverbial nail in VMIs coffin.
Navy held off to win 3710.
Im excited for our players, Coach Johnson, smiling proudly, told Bay Weekly after the game.
We took care of that for a week, he laughed at mention of Navys home-losing streak.
I came from a place where we won 38 straight at home, in a row. Id rather start one of those. Theyre a lot more fun. Dinner tastes better. Everything tastes better.
Drenched and exhausted after playing the whole game, a weary Candeto said, the guys have done a great job and persevered through this. Hopefully weve turned a corner.
You have to look at it, he said moments later. Weve won two in a row. Hopefully we can continue it next week. Were just going to continue working hard.
But it was clear on the faces of the players after the game that this victory was more than a simple win. This was, they felt, the beginning of something special.
Its a new year and a new stadium, Eckle, the days hero, smiled. Were one and zero. Thats the way were looking at it. Its huge.
Especially huge for the seniors, who, for the first time in their Navy careers, got to sing Anchors Aweigh after the game as winners.
It was so exciting. We hadnt been able to do that at home. To know we came out and won a game at home, in front of our home crowd. Singing that is a little bit easier with a win than a loss, Candeto said.
We came out today, had a great crowd, new stadium and everyone was excited, Candeto added, summing up the days emotion.
Sopping wet but thrilled, the fans who sat through not only the highs and lows of this day but also of the last few years shared the teams excitement and optimism.
So Far, So Good
Will todays victory translate into a winning season? Will it mark the turnaround of the program? Will it be the beginning of a future new and monumental?
Nobody knows, but at this moment, on a hot, humid day, with the taste of a rare victory so fresh, it really doesnt matter.
Postscript: Navy followed its opening win with a 173 loss to Texas Christian University on the road September 6.
|About the Author:
Freelance writer Louis Llovio came to Annapolis at the end of the last century from Clearwater, Florida, where he was a staff writer for MainStream, a Florida local interest magazine, in the early 90s. Last year he published his first novel, Degas Street, which grew from his observations of Florida. He is working on a second novel and writes for an on-line sports magazine sports-central.org.