Even on the hardwood, Army-Navy still feels like a rivalry

Men's and women's basketball teams play nationally televised doubleheader at Alumni Hall

It has been four weeks since Navy added to its string of victories over Army in college football's most venerated rivalry, but the amicable athletic animosity between the nation's two oldest service academies does not begin and end on the gridiron.

Their reciprocal mantras — "Go Navy, beat Army" and "Go Army, Beat Navy" — reverberate through their respective athletic programs all year round, and the intensity of the rivalry was very much on display for Saturday's nationally televised basketball doubleheader at Alumni Hall.

It started with the two women's teams taking the court with the same overall record (11-3), the same Patriot League record (3-0) and the same number of wins in their 60 previous meetings. Doesn't get any more competitive than that.

"It's Army-Navy,'' Midshipmen athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. "There is a much-heightened anxiety. There's a heightened preparation. There's a heightened awareness. There's a heightened sense of intensity coming into a game like this because it means so much, not just to the players on the court, but to everyone in the arena, our alumni. You have our people billeted all over the world. I can guarantee they are going to be checking the Army-Navy scores, regardless of the competition."

The Navy women looked a bit tentative and fell behind early in the game, but eventually scored a 74-64 victory on the day the academy retired the No. 32 jersey of 1998 graduate and two-time team most valuable player Becky Dowling Calder.

The men were not so fortunate. The Mids (6-9) jumped out to an quick seven-point lead and traded baskets with the Black Knights (8-7) for most of the game, but Army came out running in the second half and emerged with a hard-fought, 60-55 victory to remain undefeated (4-0) in the Patriot League.

What an afternoon it was, regardless of the outcomes. Both games were televised by the CBS Sports Network and, lest anyone forget that the football team maintained possession of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy this year, coach Ken Niumatalolo and his team were honored at halftime of the men's game. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, was on hand and personally congratulated all of the teams involved.

West Point and the Naval Academy have been going at it like this for well over a century, but it's still refreshing to see these future military officers battle so fiercely for no more than love of competition and loyalty to their institutions. It is as close as anyone gets at the college level to pure sport, and it is a mindset that is instilled from day one.

"If you take a look at the indoctrination day — the day they do the orientation — the first thing they learn here is 'Beat Army,''' Gladchuk said. "It's ingrained in the fiber of what the institutions are about, both ways. It makes for a competitive spirit, but the most important thing is the respect we have for each other in terms of what our true calling is as we graduate and are commissioned as officers. That, of course, is to serve our nation."

Of course, it's impossible to replicate the pageantry of the football game in such an intimate setting, but the emotion and the intensity were apparent, from tip-off to the playing of the alma maters.

"Obviously, when these two teams get together, it's special,'' Army men's coach Zach Spiker said. "It's an honor to be a part of it, to think that at any given point in time, you've got 10 guys out there who are going to be tremendous leaders and serving our country. It's an honor to be part of that. They are also tremendous competitors, and that makes it a really competitive game, and that's what makes it fun. And I think Navy's a good team, and that's why we're very happy to come away with a victory.

Though the rivalry is usually motivation enough for any academy team, the Navy women had even more to play for after losing twice to Army last year and entering the game with a chance to get a leg up on a team they will undoubtedly have to contend with throughout the Patriot League season.

"We were co-champs with them last year in the regular season and they've been one of the best programs, so it isn't just Army-Navy. It's the fact [that] there is no better team in the league consistently than them," said Navy women's coach Stefanie Pemper.

That's certainly true, but everything begins and ends with the hyphen between Army and Navy, no matter the sport.

"Whether it be cross country or whether it be women's soccer," Gladchuk said, "once you've played in this contest, once you've been a part of it, once you understand it, it stays with you for life. It's meaningful forever."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Fridays mornings at 9 a.m. on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

 

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