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A sloppy first half made way for a dominant naval second as the Midshipmen beat Air Force, 46-7, in the sixth annual meeting for the Lt. Colonel Kevin M. Shea Memorial Cup. At the Prusmack Rugby Complex in Annapolis, Md., the match was close at halftime, but Navy exploded for four tries in the first 20 minutes of the second half. Navy’s imposing defense led the way for the victory to bring back the Shea Cup to Annapolis.
On the dramatic difference in play between the first and second halves, Navy eightman and three-try scorer Connor McNerney said, “At practice every week, we train to play well in the second half. We have very demanding practices during the week and we play above game tempo. We bring it together when most tired.”
“We put a lot of emphasis on playing for Lt. Col. Shea,” McNerney added. “It’s a big occasion and we are playing for all of our alumni and playing for each other, brother to our left, brother to our right. We just went after it.”
One of the first plays dictated how the game unfolded. Navy started off the day driving Air Force’s scrum backwards and then winning the ball in the subsequent ruck. The Midshipmen’s aggressiveness of defense was evident from the start and led to the Zoomie’s starting scrumhalf to leave the game early due to injury.
For all the good on defense, the offenses on both sides were marred by ball handing turnovers and a rash of penalties. Neither offense entered their opponents’ 22 for the first ten minutes and when Navy finally moved inside, it promptly knocked the ball on.
When Navy was organized, the Midshipmen were first on the board with a penalty from Connor McNerney. Navy would get more opportunities, but had difficulty finishing the effort. That effort finally paid off in the 17th minute when wing Denver Fuller crashed into the tryzone following a lineout from across the field. The conversion missed, but Navy was up, 8-0.
Air Force had a chance to put some points on the board with a penalty in the 21st minute, but the kick missed its mark. As the half continued, Navy saw more missed opportunities that included a held ball and sustained pressure inside the Zoomies’ 22.
Poor ball handling and passing came back to bite Navy in the 33rd minute as Air Force’s Braden Smith picked off a floater on the wing to race 50 meters for the intercept try. Eric Menser connected on the conversion to cut the lead to one point. With limited time remaining in the half, Navy capitalized on a Air Force defensive miscue to kick for points. McNerney added to the lead with the penalty and Navy led 11-7 at the half.
When the teams emerged from the break, Navy clearly was the squad with momentum and dominated every facet of the game. Starting in the 43rd minute, the Midshipmen unleashed an onslaught of six tries in the half, including four in the first 20 minutes.
Flanker Michael Galvan got the first try off a forwards ball after a counterattack and lock Philip Dalke followed with a dot down three minutes later. McNerney took over from there as he scored two tries in the next ten minutes. The first was a 40 meter Air Force charge down recovery followed by an eightman pick from 20 meters out.
Navy’s defense dominated the second half only allowing the Zoomies to enter its 22 a handful of times all day. The Midshipmen never let up and McNerney drove the final nail into the victory in the 73rd minute with a quick tap penalty and stretch for the try. With the conversion, McNerney scored his 31st point of the match and Navy celebrated the 46-7 win and Shea Cup victory.
On the loss, Air Force head coach Denny Meridith said, “It was a tough hard fought match on both sides. Navy was able to gain the momentum, especially in the beginning of the second half. We made a lot of turnovers we shouldn’t have made... Kudos to Navy, they played hard and never let up. I don’t think our guys ever let up either, I just think they created the opportunities for Navy more than we created opportunities for us.”
After the game, Navy was presented the Memorial Cup by Lt. Col. Shea’s daughter, Brenna. Graduating in the spring from the Naval Academy, Brenna spoke of her father and how despite playing on different sides of the field today, they all will be playing for the same team in the future.
“It’s about legacy,” Brenna Shea said. “I think both teams are steeped in a lot of history and the thing about my father is that he is a part of that legacy. This game serves as a reminder of what’s important. We play at the academies, but utlimatley there are real issues where people give their lives. We have to fight for this nation and this game is a reminder of that.”