Army-Navy thrillers stretch past gridiron


Anyone laboring under the impression that this Army-Navy thing begins with about 10 days of anticipation and ends with a winning field goal (usually by the Cadets) in early December should make an effort to view any other of the dozens of confrontations included in this storied series annually.

While the lads in the helmets and shoulder pads serve as the cover boys and cash register and pick up most of the tab for all athletics, which is good, their competitive juices don't flow any more intensely than those of people swinging bats, carrying sticks or tossing javelins and running.

The Gold and Blue types were feeling pretty good about themselves Saturday after their women's track team had scored its first victory ever over Army (83-71), and the Middies lacrosse team had held off a determined but outmanned Cadets squad, 13-11, the evening before.

But now it was essential to maintain the momentum in men's track or these gains would be negated. Everyone knew the Black Knights would be strong in the field events and probably would jump off to an early lead.

And, yes, the Cadets were off and winging as Gerry Ingalls won the hammer, Jon Pontius and Mike Crewnshaw the jumps and Darrin Hinman the vault. On a 5-3-1 scoring basis, the visitors led, 26-8. Then Mike Jefferson slipped out of his warmups and the pursuit was under way. You might remember Mike as a flanker and kick returner in the fall who will have laid claim to a dozen varsity letters come graduation next month.

In the first running event, Jon Clemens and Matt Limbert had gone 1-2 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, Limbert performing brilliantly as he rumbled by two Cadets in the last 300 meters to finish second. Navy fans, becoming really interested for the first time, had hoped for a third; they were ecstatic when he went one better than that.

This 8-1 showing in the steeple, together with Blake Wilburn's triumph in the shot, had the faithful whispering this was going to be a race after all. The 400-meter relay was next, but Army tossed a wet blanket over the enthusiasm as its first three runners built up a solid lead for their anchorman. Jefferson grabbed the baton for Navy.

Yeow! Did anyone get the number of that runaway Ferrari? Mike made up the deficit and won with daylight. Navy had five more points. Army dominated the hurdles, taking first and third (8-1), but Mids Frank Perry, Josh Lafferty and Kwame Cooke swept the 400 meters (9-0).

Jefferson captured the 100-meter -- by more than half the length of a first down. Tom Keefer won the 800 meters for the home team, but the visitors were piling up second and thirds, holding their lead.

Navy long hurdler John Krall held the lead until the last fence in the event when two Army guys swept past and got to the tape first. The lost points were extremely important, but the situation wasn't to the critical stage yet, especially when Jefferson won the 200 meters easily and teammate Dom Neal finished third.

The result of the high jump came in, Greg Sutton adding a first (6-9) to his second in the long jump (22-10) and now it became clear what Navy needed to win: A sweep or a 1-2 finish in the 5,000 meters and victory in the concluding relay.

The rivals wound around the track, a pair of Middies doggedly holding onto the lead. The partisan crowd prayed that what was happening at the 4,000-meter mark would hold up. Army competitors, standing adjacent to where they signal the runners how many laps remain in the race, smiled knowingly when the number was down to three and their captain, Mike Bernstein, and Erick Rheam started their push from third and fourth.

It was over. Too bad. But there was no time for wouldas, couldas and shouldas. No recriminations. The gun had sounded for the mile relay and now it was back to four-man teams and isn't teamwork what the academies are all about?

The lead flipped back and forth through the first three legs. It now came down to the anchors and they performed as Alydar and Affirmed had in the Triple Crown horse races of years ago.

Frank Perry and his Army counterpart were dead even each stride of the 100-meter stretch. The crowd pressed in on the track, leaving just two lanes for the charging runners. It was a fourth-and-goal on the 2. A photo finish, unbelievable. Army had the match in the win column but not one spectator was leaving Ingram Field. It was quiet and still during the wait for the finish-line picture: Navy by a whisker as the teams had to be given identical times to the tenth, 3:19.2.

On second thought, check with your doctor before doing the Army-Navy thing.

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