Simple game provides pleasant surprise


THERE ARE TIMES when you feel lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, when things turned out magnificently, beyond anything you could have imagined when you walked in or started out.

A few years ago, I went fishing in the Big Gunpowder Falls -- the same day, it turned out, that a man in kilts decided to serenade us with bagpipes in the woods along the river.

I felt lucky to have seen a certain amazing Dunbar High basketball game -- incredible passes, fabulous shooting -- that included a couple of guys named Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Williams. I happened to be in the audience one night when Melissa Manchester decided to sing, "I Can't Get Started," that clever Ira Gershwin-Vernon Duke tune.

I remember being in a boat with friends off Poole's Island for an unforgettable sunset on a Friday evening in October 1993.

I went to the Mechanic once and discovered that Larry Storch, one of my favorite characters from the old "F Troop" television show (Cpl. Randolph Agarn), had the part of Dr. Einstein in "Arsenic and Old Lace," and he was excellent.

Like a lot of people, I like small surprises.

There was some of that feeling -- being in the right place at the right time, taking delight in a discovery -- in Dahlgren Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy Sunday.

This is a grand building, dating from 1903, an easy walk from the visitor's entrance to the Academy. Dahlgren's high ceiling is arched and ribbed with hundreds of lights. A wide wooden balcony runs the length and width of the place, and natural light pours through several Palladian windows. A yellow Navy biplane hangs from the ceiling. The main floor, which seems as big as a football field, was once used for military drills. But for many years Dahlgren has been a place for recreation -- ice skating, in particular. And the Navy hockey team plays there, too.

It's a hockey club, actually, that competes in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. Each year, after playing a schedule of games that begins in October, the Navy team hosts the annual Crab Pot tournament, and that's what we walked into Sunday afternoon. No charge at the door.

The championship game, between Navy and Towson University, turned out to be one of the best games we've ever seen, professional or amateur, in some years. (It was certainly better than the National Hockey League's All-Star game, played the same day, a scoring blowout.)

In the Navy-Towson game, it wasn't stylish puck-passing that impressed -- there wasn't that much of it, really -- or elegant moves.

It was a combination of things -- fiery determination in the players on both sides, aggressive defensive play along the old boards of the Dahlgren rink, resilient goaltending, hundreds of Navy fans screaming from the wooden balcony above the ice -- that created the kind of atmosphere that lifts spirits and fills hearts.

Maybe it was the look of old Dahlgren that gave it the feel of old-fashioned athletic competition, pure and passionate. But it might also have been the thorough lack of glitz and hype, and the knowledge that the guys on the ice weren't playing for anything but the unconditional love of hockey. There was a huge amount of heart in the game.

For the Navy seniors, it was their last home game. One of them, Phil Karg, from Michigan, scored the first goal of the game, giving Navy the lead in the second period. Five minutes later, another academy senior, Eric Sonnenberg, of Minnesota, scored the second Navy goal.

But Towson is tough; it has been nationally ranked in recent years. The Tigers rang up two goals in the last two minutes of the second period, and the score was tied.

The third period -- a true test of endurance for players who had competed in preliminary games the day before -- started with startling spurts of speed skating on both sides. It is hard to describe the intensity of play in that last period, but I felt lucky to have seen it.

Both teams fought in the middle of the rink for possession of the puck, and both goalies -- Jerry Montejo for Navy and Derek Rabold for Towson -- took numerous stings. As the clock ticked down, Montejo fought off a battering, slapping or kicking away two and sometimes three shots at a time.

With less than a minute to play, Towson controlled the puck and slapped away at the Navy goal, until an untended Tiger flipped the puck over Montejo with just 43 seconds left in the game. At that point, Montejo had faced 46 shots. He had blocked all but three.

On the other end, Rabold had faced 35 shots and turned away 33.

With only three seconds left in the game, Navy took two more shots at Rabold. Rabold stopped both. The game was over.

The midshipmen, and their fans along the balcony, were stunned and dejected, losing such a close game, the outcome decided in the final seconds in front of Towson's goal. "But I'm so proud of my players," said Rick Randazzo, the Navy coach.

"The seniors were upset, everyone was," said Montejo. "But everyone knew we'd put forth our best."

And we were lucky to have seen it.

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