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Doesn’t Get Much Better Than Army-Navy

Saturday was my first Army-Navy game.

I didn’t play. I didn’t sweat, at least not to the point where it was noticeable. I didn’t parachute in like three men courageously did in a stiff wind during pre-game ceremonies. No, I just showed up to Navy Marine-Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., along with roughly 10,000 others on Saturday afternoon, and watched what unfolded.

I took a few pictures on my phone, tweeted and wrote about the game afterward, but that story – while it described how Navy ended Army’s six-game winning streak in the series with a huge fourth-quarter rally – probably missed the bigger picture. And, no, not the Patriot League playoff race, although that is important. But how great the whole day was in general, and why can’t there be more games like this one?

Rivalries are important in sports, be it mainstream or others on the smaller end, like lacrosse. A lot of observers like to talk about measures that can be done to improve the college lacrosse product on the field, and theoretically boost attendance or television ratings because of said improvements.

But if I polled those sitting in the sun-splashed bleachers and parking lots outside on the topic of why they were there, I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t because of the visible shot clock after a stall warning rule. Similarly, you think the 11.3 million that, on average, just watched March Madness cared enough about an ongoing pace of play discussion in men’s basketball not to watch?

The reaction of the home crowd at Navy on Saturday after the first big play that went their way early in the first quarter provided evidence to the contrary. The biggest games are about more than just what happens on the field. They’re about tradition, memories and legacies. This Navy senior class wanted to beat Army for the first time.

The crazy and loud midshipmen sitting behind the home bench heckled Army players as they walked off the field in two lines after pregame warmups. Once the 94th edition of the Army-Navy men’s lacrosse series started, favorable moments for the Midshipmen on the field resulted in a roar that I hadn’t heard at a lacrosse game since the 2011 NCAA quarterfinals between Virginia and Stony Brook at the Seawolves’ LaValle Stadium on the north shore of Long Island.

Coincidentally, current Navy coach Rick Sowell was Stony Brook’s coach then and the game was played in front of nearly the same number of fans.

Passion brings out the best in most, lacrosse fans and attendance included. About an hour before the start Saturday afternoon, traffic backed up from the off-ramp from Route 50 for Annapolis. Considering the amount of games I’ve attended in recent years where it didn’t seem the community or campus knew a lacrosse game was being played, the logjam in the right lane was actually a pleasant sight.

It helped that it was about 60 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. Masters golf updates could be heard on someone’s car radio. It was the official start of spring. February lacrosse seemed like a distant memory.

You can’t just create rivalries, but you can nurture them. Army-Navy draws from events and history much bigger than a single game of lacrosse.

The member of the 1990 Navy team who appeared from overseas in a taped video message on the stadium scoreboard during a TV timeout, urging the current team to “fight for every ground ball,” was an indication of that.

Navy senior short-stick defensive midfielder Brendan Gaine, my hometown’s friend’s younger brother, is another example. He has worn the late Brendan Looney’s jersey No. 40 all season long as the team’s captain. He didn’t see much playing time Saturday, but made the most of when he did, playing the wing on faceoffs and forcing a key turnover the defensive end after Navy took its first lead, 8-7, in the fourth quarter after trailed 6-3 late in the third. The Mids went the other way and scored.

“You’ve got a senior who’s motivated,” Sowell said afterward. “You can get a lot out of a senior in a scenario like we did today. He seized the moment.”

And that’s what it’s all about; in a scenario like it was.

By the fourth quarter, most plays broke Navy’s way. Brady Dove’s faceoff wins, Patrick Keena finally converted on a question-mark dodge that had been just off through the first three quarters, John Connors’ timely saves, and defenseman Chris Fennell locking up Army’s top threat, John Glesener. Even from a comfortable seat up in the press box, the events seemed frenetic, as Navy scored seven goals in 15 minutes. Army couldn’t match the fury with the limited possessions it had.

“It still doesn’t seem real,” Connors said about 20 minutes later. “Somebody would come up with a big play. A strip or ground ball. That fourth quarter went down pretty quick.”

After Navy secured its first win against Army since 2009, the midshipmen behind the bench stormed the field, some bumping into Army players on their way to gather around goalie Sam Somers on the end of the stadium opposite its own bench. The P.A. announcer asked them to return to their seats.

“It’s about digging deep in a game like this,” Sowell said. “Big rivalry. We hadn’t won in a while. We’re at home, the crowd. Could you ask for a nicer crowd, a nicer day? Our guys took full advantage of it.”

After the post-game press conferences and the Navy women’s game that immediately followed, fans who were inside the stadium earlier were still outside in the parking lots celebrating Navy’s 10-7 win. This is how lacrosse fans can be made. It looked and felt like a big-time event. And it was. I’m pretty sure it even looked good on TV.

Looking Ahead

This is the last week before conference tournaments begin. The Patriot League gets going first with a pair of quarterfinals on April 21, with teams and matchups to be determined. The ACC tournament will also be played next weekend. All times Eastern.

1. No. 2 North Carolina (12-1) at No. 1 Notre Dame (8-1), 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU)

Two teams with national championship potential square off in the second No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup of the season. Last time around, Notre Dame beat then-No. 1 Syracuse in double-overtime in South Bend.

2. No. 3 Maryland (11-1) at No. 10 Ohio St. (10-3), 11 a.m. Saturday (Big Ten Network)

The absence of the injured Charlie Raffa showed up on Sunday night when Maryland fell behind Rutgers 4-2 at halftime as the Scarlet Knights’ Joe Nardella, who ranked third nationally in win percentage, won seven of eight faceoffs. But things turned around for the Terps’ Jon Garino and company in the second half and Maryland avoided the upset. Ohio State has a capable faceoff man in Christopher May, who ranked eighth the country with a 64.7 win percentage. Winning faceoffs is a key piece to Maryland’s winning blueprint.

3. No. 12 Georgetown (8-4) at No. 7 Virginia (8-4), 1 p.m. Saturday

This game will have NCAA tournament implications one way or another. Georgetown is in the conversation for an at-large spot right now and a win over Virginia would strengthen what’s already a strong resume. Virginia, on the other hand, could get itself into some dangerous territory with a loss.

4. No. 8 Cornell (9-3) at No. 15 Brown (8-3), 1 p.m. Saturday

Yale coach Andy Shay’s comments to ESPN play-by-play man and Lacrosse Magazine contributor Eamon McAnaney after the Bulldogs’ win over Brown last week I thought were telling.

“We talked to other coaches and they all said that the first four or five minutes will make you adjust,” Shay said of Brown’s quick pace. “We played their game a little bit and we enjoyed that for a little while. We were able to run and gun for a bit and mix up the tempo on them.”

Brown is that type of team that can get you off your game. Will Cornell let that affect them or look like the preseason Ivy League favorite?

5. Richmond (8-4) at Bellarmine (4-6), 1 p.m. Saturday

Dan Chemotti’s second-year program is 4-0 in Southern Conference play right now. If they beat Bellarmine on Saturday and defeat fellow 4-0 Mercer the week after, Richmond will be the top seed for the conference postseason tournament and in line to make a second-straight NCAA tournament.

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