May 30, 2012
In every season, there are great games, bad games, championship games -- and, if you're lucky, a game so meaningful it will be etched in your memory forever.
For me this year, that was Navy vs. Johns Hopkins before 11,917 fans on a 75-degree Saturday at beautiful Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. That may puzzle the Hopkins faithful who know I'm a Hopkins graduate and played there.
Some games transcend all that. This one reaffirmed things I've believed for many years -- and verified the coaching qualifications of a man I met in the 1980s.
When I became a sports writer in the 1950s, my first beat was Navy football. I covered the major bowl games of Navy's only two Heisman Trophy winners, Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach.
Over the next 30 years I spent more time at the Naval Academy than I did at Hopkins. In the beginning, even Navy basketball was big. The Mids played Duke and North Carolina. In lacrosse, Navy won all the national championships in the 1960s -- they called it the Decade of Dominance.
During that time I met, broke bread with and traveled with assorted superintendents and commandants and even SecNavs (Secretaries of the Navy), as well as athletic directors and alums. Spend that much time in that environment and you will understand the service academies are the best at instilling pride, spirit and passion for the institution.
Johns Hopkins, 9-2 at the time, was heavily favored this year over Navy (5-6), which had just lost to archrival Army the previous week in front of 10,000-plus fans in West Point. Before driving to Annapolis that day I assured my wife the Blue Jays would win by at least five goals. But Navy won 8-2. It won because of pride, spirit and passion.
I suspected during the pre-game warm-ups that one of those special Navy moments might happen. When Navy's players, led by the American flag, burst onto the field, they sprinted full speed to the faceoff spot. Hopkins' players walked there. Uh-oh. Watch out, Hopkins.
For the next two hours it was all Navy -- the ground balls, the hustle and 80 percent of the goals scored. Navy goalie R.J. Wickham (18 saves) had one of those days. Then it was announced over the public address system that Commandant Robert Clark would give the night off to all Midshipmen except those on restriction. What a cheer that brought.
Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala admitted he was "embarrassed." No doubt he would like to expunge the whole thing from memory.
I go back to the 1980s with Rick Sowell, now Navy's first-year coach. He was the best player at Washington (Md.) College and as good as any midfielder in the country. One of my daughters was a Shoreman then, so I saw some of Sowell's games. After college, Sowell did very well as a coach, especially at Dartmouth and Stony Brook.
After last season, Navy fired a beloved lacrosse coach and good man in Richie Meade. That created quite a schism among Navy people. Many, including some good friends of mine, were upset, vocal and resistant to accepting Sowell as the new Navy coach.
I've never seen Navy play harder than it did in beating Hopkins so soundly that day. It was a proud moment at Navy, and a game I'll remember long after others fade from memory. I think Rick Sowell, the only black head coach in Division I men's lacrosse, is blue and gold at Annapolis now.