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In the first overtime game in the history of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup, Navy defeated Central Washington 27-24 to advance to the semifinals. The Midshipmen, who were severe underdogs in the game, shocked the Wildcats through sheer determination and tremendous heart.
It looked like another day at the office for Central Washington in the first five minutes. Alex McKensie scored a try to give Central Washington an early 7-0 lead but Navy bounced back, controlling the rest of the first half.
The Midshipmen monopolized ball possession and territory. A frustrated CWU side committed penalty after penalty until its defense finally cracked. The repeated infringements resulted in a Wildcat yellow card in the 22nd minute. Navy finally capitalized off a five-meter scrum with Jake Martin finding the try zone to even the game.
Navy continued its strong performance, recycling and using a number of phases to keep possession. It paid dividends right before halftime as fullback Ben Johnston found space at wide for a converted try and a 14-7 halftime lead.
“Our ability to hold the ball and our ability to recycle were key today,” said Navy coach Mike Flanagan.
Central Washington began to find its form in the second half. Substitute Larry Peneueta tied the game off a lineout and gave CWU the lead 15 minutes later. After a Navy yellow card, Peneueta dove over again off another nicely designed line out play.
After CWU added a penalty, it looked like it had weathered storm. With 10 minutes to play and a 10-point, the Wildcats just needed to run out the clock.
A relentless Navy pursuit, however, resulted in a fantastic comeback. McNerney nailed a penalty to make it a one score game with 10 minutes to go and the Midshipmen feverishly worked for a tying score.
Central Washington defended vigorously while Navy pounded its line late in the game. Finally, off a five-meter scrum, Pat Moore barely edged his way over in the corner to cut the lead to 27-25. Navy needed the tough conversion and McNerny delivered. From the sideline, it looked as if the ball was sailing wide but the wind pulled it inside the post. The kick barely had enough distance as it hit the cross bar and bounced over to tie the game.
“We knew watching film we could put a lot of pressure on those guys and would take 50-60 minutes for them to get a little more tired than us,” Flanagan said of the late second half surge.
This one would take more than 80 minutes to settle. Neither team gave an inch in the first 10-minute period of overtime. Ultimately, Navy’s fitness started to take over the game and the home side earned a 30-meter penalty with four minutes left in the second overtime. McNerny nailed the clutch kick again to give Navy a 30-27 lead.
“I am a believer that every time I show up to kick I reset. I focus and pretend I am alone and the only one on the field just like I am in practice. I swing as if nobody is there,” McNerny said of his kicking approach.
“Conor was of the charts today. The kicks were amazing but he leads from the front. Offensively, defensively, lineout calls. He understands the game. It is hard to overestimate all the good things he does for us,” Flanagan said of the number 8.
Central Washington battled for the remainder of the game but Navy refused to give in. The Midshipmen held up a Central Washington maul and won a penalty. Navy kicked to touch to end the game and take the upset victory.
“It was really up to the brotherhood that came together. We held together for the whole 100 minutes. We knew how to reset and focus on each other. I thought we played as one hell of a team. I have never played with a team like this before,” said an excited McNerny.
Navy will return to the semifinals after missing out last year and will travel to Arkansas State. It will be a rematch of a quarterfinal game Arkansas State won at Navy last season.