September 16, 2010

Carry the flag

More news about: Coast Guard | Merchant Marine

NEW LONDON, Conn. – Around the Nation is officially out of the business of ranking rivalries.

Picture a perfect Saturday afternoon, 71 degrees on the banks of the Thames River, with sailboats passing a few hundred yards from most seats at Cadet Memorial Field. Midshipmen dressed in white pack one side of the stadium. Cadets in their blues are on the other side, not far from the alumni who wear knee-high dress socks and mesh hats pronouncing the war they served in.

The view from the stands at Coast Guard
The cadets, the players and the water all contribute to a great scene at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Photo by Keith McMillan, D3sports.com

On the field, in a 10-8 game, U.S Merchant Marine Academy lines up for a two-point conversion with 51.7 seconds left. Quarterback Derrick Ventre rolls out with a chance to salvage his 16-for-44, three-interception day, but his protection breaks down. He spins out of a sure sack, and spots a receiver squatting in a hole in the defense in the back of the end zone.

Coast Guard’s Pat Bennett sees this unfolding. His offense has gained a paltry 107 yards on the day, including minus-3 rushing. He’s already returned the opening kickoff 82 yards for the Bears’ only touchdown, blocked a field goal attempt and batted a Ventre pass high into the air on a cornerback blitz. Bennett, a fifth-year senior because he sat out last season to concentrate on his academics, has watched most of the players he arrived at the academy with leave for active duty. One, who he calls Johnny Mac and considers a mentor, emailed beforehand to remind him how the pain of losing the Secretaries’ Cup rivalry game feels.

Bennett can’t let this game go to overtime. He feels he let his teammates down last year, when he wasn’t on the field in a 33-27, double-overtime loss to Merchant Marine. Forty-five hundred fans in a 4,000 capacity stadium are on their feet.

And I’m supposed to look this kid in the eye later and tell him this is all nice, but Amherst-Williams is better? That the Monon Bell game matters more?

Forget the obsession with what’s the best and what means the most. Though it was junior safety Chris Izurieta who left his man and stuck a hand out to bat down Ventre’s final pass and preserve Coast Guard’s first win in the series since 2007, the Secretaries’ Cup clearly meant as much to players, fans and alumni as any rivalry in Division III does.

Wes Stearns, who still holds the career rushing record he set back when Merchant Marine was more commonly referred to as Kings Point, is a Realtor in Northern Virginia. He showed houses all afternoon, but was on his iPhone checking for updates on the score. Further away, in Iraq, former quarterback Christian George, running back Lance Lynch and lineman Nick Hartmann e-mailed during the cgasports.com broadcast. And then there are the notes, like the one Bennett got from former defensive end John McDonald.

“He was one of my mentors when he was here and I still keep in contact with him,” said Bennett, remembering how many of his friends are out in the fleet as he spoke. “He sent me an email, and his email was like ‘Hey, we gotta win this game.’ And in the middle of his email he talked about how we lost it one year when he was here and how he felt when we lost it. So when I call him, or when I text him tonight, I’m gonna let him know I got one on him.”

But that wasn’t the only correspondence from afar during the week. Coast Guard coach Bill George recalled getting “seven or eight” a day.

“We usually get emails off the chain the week before,” Izurieta said. “Alumni from way back to guys who graduated the year before. Everybody’s emailing us, like pages-long emails, ‘I wish I could be there.’ They like the Coast Guard, but they wish they could strap up the pads one more time. That really gets us going, because we know this is our last couple chances to do this.”

“They call it the Long Blue Line, people who graduate from here,” Bennett said. “Everyone knows everyone in the Coast Guard because the service is small. For the people that I played with, to leave, it’s like we carry on their torch.”

Indeed, alumni likely keep in touch with former players at all 238 Division III schools. But most of those check-ins come from a cubicle or some other fairly normal job. Coast Guard cadets can go directly into positions of leadership upon graduation. Some head directly for duty onboard a cutter. Graduates of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy are trained to be "shipboard officers and leaders in the transportation field,” learning skills that help move commerce on the waters, and in times of war, help deliver military supplies. Graduates of each academy are obligated to serve at least five, and often eight, years after graduation.

Both, along with Army (West Point), Navy (Annapolis) and Air Force (Colorado Springs) are among the five federal service academies. (Division III members Maine Maritime, Massachusetts Maritime and SUNY-Maritime are state-supported maritime colleges whose graduates can join the Coast Guard or merchant marines, and Norwich is a privately chartered military university).

Though Coast Guard and Kings Point have their differences, either side admits they’re probably more alike than not.

“There isn’t anyone we have any more respect for,” said Merchant Marine coach Mike Toop, “because we know their guys are doing the same stuff our guys are doing.”

Or as Coast Guard Rear Adm. J. Scott Burhoe put it in a postgame speech, “even though we are rivals on the field, we are partners on the sea.”

For those who will never get to go, the pomp and circumstance is unrivaled by anything else in Division III. And with the game taking place on Long Island Sound on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was hard not to notice the gravity of what people felt.

Flags were at half mast. At 2:11, everyone in the stadium observed a moment of silence, followed by the ringing of a bell 11 times.

And lest you think these two academies aren’t “real” parts of the military, familiarize yourself with the life of Frank Toner, a former Merchant Marine running back who was killed serving in Afghanistan.

There’s no way ATN can concern itself with a ‘most meaningful’ rivalry when the stakes are that high.

Games are just games. And they are a welcome diversion to those training for a life of most meaningful service to their country.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp spoke to the teams, lined up respectfully along the 40-yard lines following the game, as the Secretaries’ Cup was being presented.

“Wherever I travel,” he said, “citizens thank me for my service. Whenever they do that, I say I will pass on the thank yous to the young people who are doing the work, to the young patriots who continue to step forward.”

Those patriots, Coast Guard’s George points out, sacrifice a normal college experience to come to either academy.

Football, he says, “is an outlet, it is their fun time. At another school it might be the hardest part of the day. Here it might be the easiest part.”

At the academies, George adds, “there’s no beer blasts. There’s no parties. Both of these schools are high-level academic schools that have a military lifestyle to ‘em. And these young people at both schools that are playing football sacrifice a great deal. So football becomes the outlet, it becomes the escape. It’s two hours of ESPN Gameday. D3.com, for a kid who’s stuck at this academy in Chase Hall, is probably 10 times bigger than it is for the kid at West Conn. or Springfield or wherever. D3.com is a big thing when you’re stuck in Chase Hall seven nights a week.”

That might also explain some of the pent-up hostility in the end zone sections. As respectful as the standing crowds were as Burhoe and Papp spoke after the game, as excited as they were for the Coast Guard Falcon flyover just before kickoff, the cadets and midshipmen behind the north goalposts were rowdy.

At one point, when Kings Point was driving toward a score, its white-clad midshipmen chanted “We want push-ups.”

“You need push-ups,” the cadets shot back.

When the cadets tried taunting the Mariners for something that happened to SUNY-Maritime, the midshipmen chanted “That’s the state school.”

A Merchant Marine midshipman
A Merchant Marine midshipman expresses the emotions of many in the crowd, with packed stands in the background.
Photo by Keith McMillan, D3sports.com

The midshipmen ran back and forth with a “Beat Coast Guard” flag, with a teddy bear impaled at the top.

The end zone antics were quite the sideshow. The game itself left a little to be desired. Kings Point gained 137 more yards than Coast Guard (244 total), but missed a field goal, had another blocked, set up a Bears field goal when a punt hit a player and threw three interceptions, including two that skipped off receivers’ hands. The Mariners also dropped a sure 49-yard touchdown pass with 14:21 left in the fourth quarter.

“It’s disappointing when you shut a team out and you lose,” Toop said. “Defensively we didn’t give up a score.”

Yet the difficulties revealed something in his players.

“I was really proud of the defensive kids, even coming off the field the last time, they’re all screaming to the offense, ‘Hey, you guys are gonna do it, you guys are gonna do it.’ That’s the thing these kind of institutions breed from a unity standpoint.”

Coast Guard’s performance wasn’t a whole lot better. It used three quarterbacks to pass for 110 yards, and total 107. There were two interceptions, a missed 51-yard field goal in the fourth and a bad snap at the 12:09 mark that led to a safety.

Still, the game drew out exceptional efforts and produced an entertaining climax.

“That was pretty much like a storybook ending,” said Izurieta, the defensive back who broke up the game-tying play. “Maybe not the touchdown, but that last play, we figure ‘if they get this, we’re going into overtime and our defense is dead. We don’t know what will happen.’ ”

The feeling of beating Kings Point for the first time in his three Secretaries’ Cup games was so exhilarating Izurieta said he couldn’t put it into words.

Bennett could.

“This game is like the biggest game of our season. It’s like the D-III version of Army-Navy. So we had to get up for this one.

“The atmosphere for this game, we have everybody behind us,” he said. “Usually other games, people come out and watch us, but this game is like the D-III championship to us. For us to win this game just made us feel like champions.”

George, who was an all-American center at Ithaca, a graduate assistant at Ohio State and a coach at Princeton, knows a rivalry when he sees one. So does Toop, who played for Merchant Marine and coached at Union.

Can the Secretaries’ Cup compare to the Cortaca Jug or the Dutchman’s Shoes?

“For me, nothing’s ever been close to this one,” Toop said.

A football field with a river view. Perfect, 71-and-breezy weather. Bands and post-game playing of the alma maters that would make our friend AUPepBand proud. The raucous crowd, the uniformed mids and cadets. And a game that comes down to the final minute.

It’s honestly everything we could ever want in a college football game.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Toop said, briefly forgetting that his team just had its hearts broken. “Doesn’t get any worse than this either.”

Facing the music

No fewer than four times at the Academy, I heard reference to the record I predicted for Coast Guard in Kickoff ’10: 0-9.

Sports information brought it up when we were discussing credentials. It was a topic during my halftime appearance on the Bears’ broadcast and in the postgame interviews. Coast Guard even scored a touchdown on its very first play of the season, as if to thumb its nose at 0-9.

So I admit it. I was wrong.

Predictions are an interesting phenomenon. On one hand, they’re often easy for writers to make because they come out before any games are played, and by the time they’re borne out, so much has changed and so much else has been written that they’re irrelevant. And yet, players and coaches don’t look at them that way.

Pick a team to finish well, and a coach gives you a hard time for putting a bull’s eye on his team. Pick them to do not so well, and it’s like a personal affront, sometimes even fodder for motivational speeches and for players who try harder when doubted.

Doing what we do for as long as we have, two things about predictions have become pretty clear: 1) Readers love them, and 2) We’re wrong a lot.

I couldn’t imagine anything more boring than a season that went exactly as predicted. Expectations help set the stage for the upsets we remember vividly. Still, the goal is to be correct, or as close to it as possible. And it’s not like we choose these records out of thin air.

For Kickoff, I talked with coaches and SIDs from every school in the NEFC, not only about their own team, but about their opponents. There were other sources I could have, and maybe should have, tapped. Also, I might well have bought into certain coaches’ optimism while Coast Guard’s George was extremely honest about the challenges facing his offensive line, his three-quarterback rotation and the caliber of player he graduated (including all-time leading receiver Sam England, and Steve Arguelles, a D3football.com all-American at safety in 2006 after an 11-interception season).

Coast Guard also returned only 11 starters, including two on offense, from its 4-5 team last year. In the NEFC, only perennial contenders Bridgewater State and Curry returned fewer. And CGA plays its seven Bogan Division rivals, one crossover opponent from the Boyd – the conference power Colonels – and rival Merchant Marine. (At one point I had them winning the Secretaries’ Cup, but reversed field.) Six of Coast Guard’s 2009 games were toss-ups; It beat Westfield State and Worcester State by a field goal each, and Framingham State and Mass. Maritime by a touchdown. They also lost to Merchant Marine and Fitchburg State in double overtime.

It certainly didn’t help that I went through my picks game by game and made sure to note that MIT had a nine-game schedule, but originally published an 0-10 pick for Coast Guard. Yikes, they’re so bad they’re going to lose a game they’re not even playing?

We know the answer to that.

Being wrong happens. Mistakes happen. And whenever picks are involved, someone’s got to finish at the bottom, or be predicted to lose.

But nobody has to like it. And the beauty is, just as with polls, picks are subjective. They help give perspective, but players and coaches still control what happens on the field, and the final score is absolute. Even if it doesn’t include an offensive touchdown.

If you’re ever in New London, I hear they serve a real nice crow.

Postcard from Around the Nation

Much like the time we hung out with Ed Meierkort (then of UW-Stout) in Wisconsin and as soon as we sat down, we were offered cheese, Connecticut actually resembles its stereotype. Tree-lined winding roads, covered bridges over small creeks ... The type of picturesque stuff you’d see on a calendar. And it’s not even foliage season yet.

While Coast Guard’s games are played on the Thames with the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in view, Western Connecticut State – where I took in Friday night’s game against SUNY-Maritime – plays its games at The WAC, which resembles a European soccer stadium in its design. And I definitely heard a Maritime assistant ask after the game if he’d heard vuvuzelas. (No, but the Colonials did distribute the equally terrible-sounding ThunderStix).

The Privateers and Colonials actually put on quite the ground show for the standing-room-only crowd (Throggs Neck, N.Y., is a little more than an hour away from Danbury, Conn.). Western Connecticut’s Tyler DeRosa carried 30 times for 205 yards – fitting for a team that features offensive linemen Robert Perry and Will Carr on the cover of their game day program. Maritime was more spider-like in its attack, using eight rushers to pick up 329 yards, with six of the runners between 32 and 65, and four scoring touchdowns.

Though SUNY-Maritime – which takes on Merchant Marine on Saturday – had played once before Friday night, Western Connecticut hails from the NJAC, a conference traditionally among the strongest third in Division III. That it was their debut, in theory, was not going to be a factor. The ECFC is more of a ragtag bunch, stretching from Washington, D.C. to Maine and featuring five schools that didn’t have football 10 years ago.

Pounding the block
SUNY-Maritime took a sledgehammer to Western Connecticut. Figuratively.
Photo by Mitchell S. Todd

The Privateers, then, scored a big victory for the fledgling conference behind freshman Thomas Davis, who took the second half kickoff back 80 yards for a touchdown and scored twice more, and Felix Jean, who scored twice in the fourth quarter as Maritime turned a 14-all halftime tie into a 20-point lead and eventual 41-28 win.

As for shows of respect, score one for WCSU. Presumably after reading about Privateers coach Clayton Kendrick-Holmes in Around the Northeast, the Colonials’ PA announcer wished him ‘Godspeed’ during his tour in Afghanistan.

SUNY-Maritime also celebrates its victories in a rather unique way. After the postgame talk, Davis was given a sledgehammer to break a board labeled ‘West Conn’ in front of the rest of the team.

Rivalry spotlight

The Courage Bowl, with St. John Fisher visiting Rochester, highlights this week’s slate of true rivalry games. ATN visited last season, when the Cardinals hosted. This year it's at a neutral site in Rochester, N.Y.

Franklin & Marshall and Dickinson clash for the Conestoga Wagon trophy.

John Carroll, which hosts No. 2 Mount Union, has been something of a rival for the Purple Raiders, though it was more late-90s and early 2000s when the matchups were big. The cases of Rowan and No. 23 Montclair State are similar, since the two have been top-notch in the same season less often than about a decade ago. And we’ll re-mention Merchant Marine and SUNY-Maritime here as well.

The rivalries ATN can pretty well keep track of, but with new trophy games popping up every season (scroll to Ten Best), ATN always appreciates insight and a heads-up on upcoming matchups. If you’re kind enough to point ATN in the right direction, there will be an effort made to highlight the game in this spot.

The week ahead

ATN’s five games of note in Week 3:
No. 10 Delaware Valley at No. 3 Wesley
No. 11 Ohio Northern at No. 18 Otterbein
No. 21 Mississippi College at No. 14 Hardin-Simmons
Rowan at No. 23 Montclair State
Whitworth at Redlands

Get primed for Week 3’s Games of the Week, teams on the radars of Ryan Tipps, Pat Coleman and I, and the most likely top 25 teams to get upset in Friday morning’s Triple Take. Last week’s called the UW-Eau Claire win against St. John’s. We’ll also take a look at whether the fortunes of 2-0 and 0-2 teams will change.

Who are those guys?

Week 2 was a banner week for Division III teams against their out-of-classification brethren, as they went 11-3 overall, with only a handful of the games even staying within three touchdowns. Sul Ross State’s Monte Morales passed for 492 yards and five touchdowns in a 35-32 loss to Division II Western New Mexico, as the Lobos had three kicks blocked. Another of D-III’s losses came to former member Menlo.

The wins included the 70-burger No. 1 UW-Whitewater put on Dakota State, McMurry’s 64-0 win over Texas College and Concordia-Moorhead’s 42-0 win against Valley City State.

Here’s Week 3’s schedule:

vs. Division I, FCS (1-0 in Week 2, 1-1 in 2010)
None

vs. Division II (0-1 in Week 2, 0-2 in 2010)
Missouri S&T at UW-Stevens Point

vs. NAIA (9-2 in Week 2, 13-7 in 2010)
No. 1 UW-Whitewater at Campbellsville (Mid-South Conference, East)
No. 24 Southern Oregon (independent) at No. 13 Willamette
U.Va.-Wise (Mid-South Conference, East) at Emory & Henry
Southern Virginia (independent) at Ferrum
Huntingdon at Faulkner (Mid-South Conference, West)
Haskell Indian Nations (independent) at Westminster (Mo.)
Whittier at No. 19 Asuza Pacific (independent)

(NAIA rankings from NAIA.org coaches poll)

ALSO:
George Mason (club team) at Gallaudet

Plays of the week

If you haven’t caught our new package of video highlights, check them out, with our second winner. It’ll make your week. And as more teams are aware of the potential for exposure, the better the clips will be.

Now that we’ve seen some highlight reel catches and kick returns, ATN wants to see some more variety in the nominees. Like St. Thomas, which sent a strip and fumble recovery in Week 2, or Wabash, which sent a stick from the punt coverage team. Nice!

But let’s focus those cameras on variety. I want to see a pulling guard buckle some poor outside linebacker’s knees on a pancake block. A free safety taking out a receiver coming across the middle. There’s nothing wrong with amazing catches -- those UW-Platteville and FDU-Florham videos were ‘wow!’ clips – but let’s see the full spectrum of ‘oh snap!’ plays.

Five Ways to Saturday

Follow Around the Nation ...
When the column publishes on Thursdays
When ATN travels on Saturdays, trip highlights are tweeted or blogged on the running game day thread on The Daily Dose.
Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.
Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. There were no shortage of tweets from Connecticut last Saturday.
Further discussions raised here on Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board.

The press box

Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the Top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review, insight on rivalry and trophy games, and whatever else crosses your mind. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send email to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com or use our feedback form.

Already this season, ATN is seeking suggestions for road trips in October and November (ATN especially likes non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time).

Sports Information Directors: Both the e-mail address and street address are new this season. To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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