Mids coach pauses to salute seniors

Navy football

December 22, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

San Diego -- The Poinsettia Bowl was over and Navy had lost to Utah, 35-32, but new head coach Ken Niumatalolo was not yet ready to move on.

"The offseason is coming and recruiting starts now," said Niumatalolo, who had just finished his first game as Navy's coach. "But right now, I want to try to console our guys, our seniors. The program and other stuff, I'm not worried about that right now."

Yes, he knows the Midshipmen will lose eight starters from the offense next season, but after the bowl game those eight seniors and their feelings were more important to the coach than how he would replace them.

"We don't want to forget the guys who brought us here," said Niumatalolo, whose Mids finished 8-5. "Without [those seniors], we wouldn't even be here. So I don't want to just dump those guys aside and start thinking about the future."

The returning players know there will be little rest - "The first day we're back from break, we'll be in the weight room," junior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada said. "There won't be a day off. I guarantee we'll be running and lifting as soon as we get back. But let me add, we love it, by the way."

But for a long while Thursday night, everyone in the Navy locker room just wanted to unite with the seniors and think about where they had come from. How they had been a major reason Navy has played in a bowl game for five straight seasons, a school record. How they had finished the past four years with 35 wins, second only to the class of 1919. How they had thrived all season, beating Notre Dame for the first time in 44 years, beating Army for a school-record sixth straight time, winning a fifth straight Commander in Chief's Trophy and doing it all with heart and determination.

How the majority of the 39,129 fans at Qualcomm Stadium were rooting for them.

"We're always the underdog," said senior linebacker Irv Spencer, who had a career-high 13 tackles against Utah. "But we don't always play like it."

Thursday night, for instance, for more than a half Navy might have been mistaken for the favorite. The Mids stopped Utah on its first two series - once on sophomore Ross Pospisil's first career interception - and again at the start of the second half.

But while the Mids built a 17-7 advantage, they also missed scoring opportunities. Senior slotback Reggie Campbell uncharacteristically fumbled at the Utah 2, and kicker Joey Bullen missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt wide left. And they turned the ball over twice on fumbles and once on an interception.

The Mids also got a bad call with three minutes left, when officials ruled a third-down Utah fumble that went off the end zone pylon was Utah's ball at the Navy 1 line instead of a touchback and Navy's ball at the 20. The officials admitted their mistake in a formal statement after the game, but that didn't save Navy any time on the field or get the Mids out of a bad situation. Utah scored on the next series, which started at the Mids' 10.

Still, the Mids nearly had another Houdini finish when senior Zerbin Singleton scored on a 58-yard pass play with 57 seconds to play and then recovered an onside kick.

"We're not making excuses," Niumatalolo said. "We talked all week about taking care of the football, and we had other opportunities to open up the game. I just feel bad for our seniors. I'll coach again, but for our seniors, that's their last time. Tomorrow, they'll begin thinking about the rest of their lives."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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