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Army vs Navy. Cordell Hoffer Photo.

Collectively, Army and Navy have made a combined 26 final four appearances dating back to the original collegiate national championship season of 1980. The Black Knights have made it to the semifinals 12 times and the Midshipmen 14, though four of Navy’s runs were through the Varsity Cup, a privately run championship that ran from 2013-2017.

Still, a national title evades both.

Army reached three-straight finals from 1990-1992, and Navy’s lone final appearance came in 1994. Army fell to Air Force in the ’90 title game, but their other two championship losses and Navy’s lone defeat in the final came at the hands of Cal.

The only program to have reached more final fours than Army without yielding a national title is Navy.

Not included in that list is the westernmost service academy, Air Force. The Zoomies won national titles in 1989, 1990 and 2003. But they haven’t sniffed a final four in 15 years.

Army and Navy are still trying to slay the dragon for the first time. And they’ve got relatively new coaches on the task. Matt Sherman is entering his fourth year at Army. The former Eagle and Cal All-American enjoyed success at San Diego State and Stanford before moving to New York. Navy’s Gavin Hickie is in his second year in Annapolis, having left Dartmouth for the opportunity. A longtime overseas pro, Hickie, like Sherman, coached the All-Americans for a time.

Both said upon taking their jobs they felt they could win a national championship at their respective academies.

“I still feel that way,” said Army’s Sherman. “It will be difficult, but it’s always going to be difficult to win a national championship.”

“The goal posts have moved. I say this with utmost respect to Cal, but when Life can put 60 points on Cal, it’s a different game,” said Navy’s Hickie.

“Our objective hasn’t changed. We still want to win a national championship. It’s one of the reasons we moved to the Mid-South, so we could get games against Life and Lindenwood – two of the top competitors in the country now. Our objective is still the same, but the bar’s been raised, and that’s a great thing for American rugby.”

Both Navy and Army appear to be narrowing the gap. Last spring, both had Cal on the ropes. The Midshipmen played the Bears to within six points in the playoffs, and Army led Cal midway through the second half of a March bout before falling 50-41. The cadets gave Cal a similar scare in the 2016 Varsity Cup quarterfinals.

“We’re still closing, and I believe the farther you go up, the harder it is to close,” said Sherman. “I do think it’s possible.”

Army might be better situated to catch up first, given the program is in its fifth season with varsity status, which comes with all the membership benefits of being part of the athletic department. The academies have always been better resourced than most traditional clubs, so the change wasn’t as drastic at West Point as it would have been at State U, but there are benefits.

Chief among them is admissions assistance. The standard for all of the academies is incredibly high, so the ability to give a number of talented high school rugby players a leg up in the process will likely provide Army a much-needed injection of experience.

“Where our unique challenges are to the modern landscape of collegiate rugby is that we are 100-percent American,” said Sherman.

“If you look at every other team in the top eight, I reckon at least a third of their team, now including Cal and St. Mary’s – they’ve got some playmakers who are foreign – have more experienced playmakers and just foreigners overall. Obviously, that won’t be who we are.”

You have to be a citizen to get into an academy, which is why Navy caught lightning in a bottle with Conor McNerney, the reigning Rudy Scholz Award winner. He was born American, but grew up in Switzerland. Like any number of talented foreign players from Cal, Life, Lindenwood, St. Mary’s, and BYU, he’d grown up playing rugby. In order to accept his appointment to the Naval Academy, McNerney had to forfeit his Swiss passport.

While admissions and citizenship requirements can be limiting factors, the academies certainly enjoy some unique advantages.

“The benefits we have as academies is, one, a lot of good athletes and good people who are good leaders to fill our ranks, and we live what I call the mental toughness lifestyle,” said Sherman.

“It’s not a high performance lifestyle where they’re going to sleep right and eat right. It hurts you week to week, but over time our kids become some of the toughest kids around, which I think becomes one of our biggest strengths.”

“We do have highly, highly intelligent guys, guys who are willing to work un believably hard for the cause,” added Hickie. “I’m not saying other teams don’t have that, but we have our own unique attributes that can lend themselves well to the ultimate goal.”

Not only do the academies attract stud characters, but stud athletes, too. Neither Army nor Navy are short on big, tough, strong athletes. Where they struggle is at the playmaking positions, specifically halfbacks.

Sherman is leveraging his varsity benefits to try and unearth some homegrown distributors. In Annapolis, Hickie is still trying to break the club ceiling. He doesn’t have any formalized admissions help, though not for lack of trying.

“We’re working on it pretty aggressively,” he said. “We’ve identified a young nine who could be a program changer for us, who can be a bit of a game changer for us, and we’re hoping we can assist him in any way we can to get into Navy. If he gets in, we’re in a good place for four years.”

If the varsity move was a zig for Army, jumping into the Mid-South conference was a countering zag for Navy. Joining the Black Knights in the Rugby East would have made more sense geographically. Traditionally, Navy has played Penn State and Kutztown more than Davenport and Arkansas State.

But there’s no arguing the Mid-South is the toughest league in the country. If you want to be the best…

“We lost 30-0 to a very undercooked Life side last year, and despite a fairly decent season, that was our biggest learning curve of the year. So if we can go into a league where every one of those league games is going to be tough, and we don’t want to lose, but if we are to lose, we are learning from the best teams in the country. That’s going to expediate our own learning process,” said Hickie.

“At the end of the day, genuinely, we want to challenge ourselves. If we played any minnows and we win 50-nil or whatever the score might be, what do we get out of that? We talk about wanting to be national champions, and if we want to be national champions, we really have to push the envelope, and that’s what we’re doing this year.”