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After a tame first half in the annual meeting between Air Force and Navy, the second half was a thriller where the Zoomies retook possession of the Lt Col Kevin Shea Memorial Rugby Cup, 32-21. At the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado on Friday afternoon, the Zoomies held a 12-5 lead at halftime before the Midshipmen went on a torrid run to tie it up at 26 all. Air Force kicked two penalties to Navy’s one try in the final ten minutes to give the Zoomies the 32-31 lead. A final Naval surge into the tryzone that was overturned giving the Cup back to Air Force.
“We were able to take advantage of gaps in their defense,” Air Force head coach Denny Meridith said. “We made some very dynamic runs and excellent scores so far as to building up that lead in the first 52 minutes.
“[Navy] came back hard and they were able to control the ball. They maintained possession for quite a while on each of their scores. Our mistakes, penalties, and turnovers gave them the opportunity to get in and score. It was great game for supporters to watch, but a horrible game for coaches to watch.”
The Zoomies were in control in the first half with fullback Casey Rothstein and lock Grigor Kerdikoshvili giving the team the 12-0 lead halfway through the first frame. Unfortunately for Air Force, the team captain, Ben Burmester, went down with a potentially season-ending ankle injury in the half. Navy was able to salvage five points at the end of the period with a try by Trey Fullilove.
Air Force tallied two tries to one by Navy to open the second half as Rothstein and Kaiana Miller crossed the whitewash for the Zoomies and Adam Orischak dotted the ball down for the Midshipmen. After making necessary adjustments, Navy righted the ship and flipped the momentum scoring two consecutive tries with a sustained ball control offense. Eightman Connor McNerney and wing Robbie Stephenson tied the score at 26-26 with 15 minutes remaining.
With about ten minutes left, Air Force took the lead with a Kerdikoshvili penalty and Navy responded two minutes later with an Adam Coberly try to go up by two. The Zoomies came right back with another penalty at the 75th minute mark to take the 32-31 lead.
Determined to fight until the end, Navy roared back and drove down the field setting up a five-meter scrum. The Midshipmen took it on the tighthead and McNerney grabbed the eightman pick for the try. The referees convened and overturned the try citing a scrum penalty. The final whistle was called and the Cup is now back at Air Force.
When asked about the intense match, Navy head coach Mike Flanagan said, “We played really well and I’m really proud of my guys. Our forwards completely dominated their forwards... At halftime, we made some adjustments and stopped their midfield attack. We starved them of possession, but they are a good side. It wasn’t the result for us, but we performed really well... I wished Air Force had made a tackle at the end versus a referee’s decision. My forwards were terrific, my midfield [was great] for being young made the adjustments they need to make. We did all in all a very good job. I’m very proud of the team.”
Coach Meridith attributed the victory to teamwork, especially when the captain went down early in the game. “The guys never got down mentally. They were always working together and physically supporting each other. Whenever you get that kind of momentum change, it’s easy to step back and let things go. It was an extremely hard game for both teams.”
“Grigor Kerdikoshvili was given the Man of the Match by the Navy guys,” Meridith added after his second row scored a combined 17 points. “Beside that, it was just his dynamic play on defense and offense and was a key tackler in them trying to push the ball across. Casey Rothstein at fullback had at least three try-saving tackles as a fullback and scored two tries. He is an extremely shifty runner and was able to slide through.”
The true significance of this annual event is to remember Lt Col Kevin Shea’s impact at both military academies. “Kevin’s legacy that is here at the Air Force Academy is extremely strong. The match between Air Force and Navy at this point has built a lot of relationships. Navy is strong bunch of guys and being able to share a legacy of what Kevin Shea brought between the teams is an attitude they will keep going for a long time. Being able to have the Cup here for the next year means a lot for our seniors.”