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Army defeated its academy rival Air Force 19-17 at Anderson Rugby Complex in West Point, NY Friday Night. In front of an electric crowd of several thousand cadets, Army overcame a 17-7 halftime deficit to defeat the Zoomies.
Service games are always a unique rivalry, and both coaches were excited about another year of rivalry games. “I’m thrilled, it’s always a great game when we play another service academy, they’re the same kind of kids that we have here and they’re just America’s best, so it’s a privilege to play them,” Army coach Mike Mahan said. Air Force coach Joe Muehlbauer added similar sentiments. “It is everything to these guys, for these young guys they are in awe.”
From minute one, the intensity of the match was at an incredible level only to be outdone by the physicality. The teams probed each other’s defensive lines, but neither side was able to break through in the first 20 minutes. Army squandered a couple of chances on the Air Force line, and if not for a tremendous hit and try-saving tackle in the corner, Army would have been on the board early. Due to the physicality, Army lost two of its back three to injuries in the first half. Wing Jake Lachina and fullback Logan Pierce left the match early with a concussion and a shoulder injury, respectively.
Army committed several penalties that hampered its chances of scoring, and repeated infringements at the ruck resulted in a yellow card for the Black Knights. Air Force started to get some go-forward, but Army weathered the storm and scored a try while short a man in the 21st minute. Jamison Geracci squeezed over after a series of pick-and-goes for a 7-0 lead.
Air Force responded with a try off a quick tap from a short-range penalty. Shifty scrumhalf Victor Woo broke through the Army fringe defense to get Air Force going forward. The tiny halfback was a thorn in the Black Knights side all night. He broke through the Army fringe defense on numerous occasions and produced quick ball for the Zoomies.
With the game knotted up at seven, Army used stellar set-piece play to work down the field. The back line for the Black Knights was dangerous on the set piece all afternoon, getting chunks of yardage on nearly every instance. The effort was in large part due to Geracci. “He was great in throw-ins, he was great in the hooks and he was around the field all day long,” Mahan said.
Army worked its was into the Air Force 22, but solid defense resulted in a turnover on the sideline. The Air Force winger picked up the ball and ran 80 meters. If not for an excellent recovery from Jake Lachina’s replacement, Andy Sullivan, the Zoomies would have taken the lead. Nevertheless, another close-range penalty resulted in the Zoomies No. 8, Garrett Jameson, taking a quick tap himself for a try under the posts.
Army looked like it got itself right back into the game when winger David Huff intercepted a pass with nobody in front of him. However, Air Force was awarded a penalty for offside and converted the kick to take a 17-7 lead going into the break.
Despite trailing going into halftime, Army captain Collum Magee was confident in his team’s ability to comeback. “We played some big games this year, Kutztown and Penn State. We are not scared of adversity. We went into the locker room, looked each other in the eyes and were ready to work.”
David Huff got a second chance in the second half when he took advantage of tremendous counter rucking to scoot down the sideline for a try. With the conversion missed, Army trailed 17-12. The try came against the run of play and really pulled the momentum back in the favor of the Black Knights. Feeling the pressure, Air Force committed several penalties and eventually had a player sent off with a yellow card. Army continued to sustain pressure inside the Air Force 22, but valiant defense by Air Force kept Army out.
Air Force seemed to have stopped the onslaught after forcing a knock-on, but Army continued to battle. Ironically, the defense of Air Force cracked as a result of a long-range overload that found substitute Andy Sullivan for a try. The other injury substitute, Andrew Borer, slotted the conversion for the 19-17 lead.
"To come off the bench and play at fullback, the position where all the pressure is, you're back there all alone, Borer did such a great job," Mahan added. "There's not but a tiny bit of difference between him and Pearce, so he just filled in great."
Air Force continued to battle with 10 minutes remaining, establishing pressure inside the Army 22. After numerous phases, Air Force finally earned a kickable penalty and attempted to take the lead. However, the Air Force kicker appeared to pull a muscle on the kick, and it sailed wide. Army held on for a close 19-17 victory.
Despite falling short, Muehlbauer was very happy with his team’s effort in front of a hostile crowd. “Our game plan was right, our preparation was right, and they acted like they were on the training pitch. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
Overall, it was just a tremendous game of rugby. “It was a hard 80 minutes and typical Army rugby. We wanted to play a solid 80 minutes,” said Magee. “It was a clash of the titans.”