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As Close as You Can Get: Navy over Lindenwood

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As Close as You Can Get: Navy over Lindenwood

Navy players and their classmates celebrate. Alex Goff photo.

In a battle of wills and constant momentum shifts, the US Naval Academy held off Lindenwood 12-10 to win their D1A semifinal Saturday and book a place in the national final in Houston.

On a pleasant but windy day in Annapolis, Md., the breeze was certainly a factor, but, strangle, all but three of the points on the day were score against the wind. 

Playing with the wind at their backs Lindenwood put Navy under pressure early. Within two minutes a Navy infringement offered a penalty goal attempt for Lindenwood's Matteo Pegnion. The scrumhalf booted the over-40-meter kick through the uprights and Lindenwood led 3-0.

Navy did reply, but it took a while and they certainly had trouble kicking out of their own 22. High, soaring punts were not the order of the day as the wind swatted those out of the sky like so many flies. As it was, though, Navy inched their way up the field, and got a couple of penalties. The first put them at midfield where a maul was pulled down, giving them another penalty (stop us if you've heard this one before, because this is how Cal gave up points to the Midshipmen).

That next penalty led to a maul and a couple of surges to the line before a pass directly from Sean MacLaney to center Lewis Gray allowed Gray to step inside to the channel next to the ruck and he was over. Freshman fullback Roanin Krieger slotted the difficult conversion and it was 7-3.

Throughout much of the rest of the first half Lindenwood was pressuring Navy. They got a 50-22, and several other launching pads ideal for a scoring chance. But Navy did brilliantly to steal lineout ball, nabbing at least three outright, while Lindenwood had a throw disconnect on another. This would be a topic for conversation later in the game, too.

Perhaps a bit unlucky—a kick from flyhalf Will Groves just rolled and rolled and ended up past the dead-ball-line, giving Navy a scrum 55 meters upfield—the Lions also missed a couple of key connections, as well.

Late in the first half, Navy once again got into Lindenwood territory, and after a long period of bashing at the line, hooker Ryan Bullock picked up and dove over. That ended the half, 12-3. For Navy, they had to feel good about being in the lead and having the wind. For Lindenwood, there was work to do.

And work they did. Flanker Cian Darling was a force of nature throughout the match, making tackles, putting in big carries, and just working hard all day. Backed up by Alejandro Martinez Tapia at lock and a brave effort from the other second row, Eduan Van Heerden, who battled a couple of knocks and had a shield over his face to protect it.

Now it was Navy's turn to see scoring chances dissipate. For their part, they managed to win their lineouts, but the mauls weren't quite there. One maul wheeled in such a way as to put the Navy forwards offside. Another splintered way too early, and yet another was crabbed all the way across the field, and finally stymied.

So despite their forays into the Lindenwood 22, Navy was coming away with nothing. What they were doing, however, was giving Lindenwood less and less time to come back. 

Unable to kick all that successfully, the Lions opted for the run. Nic Hardrict II burst down the sideline and beat several defenders before he was caught. His offload didn't go to hand, however. Another run down the right side made ground but no payoff.

But when Lindenwood fullback Brendan Mason came off injured the Lions were able to sub on freshman Kobe Millar. Mason had done a superb job in the #15 jersey, but Millar provided a counter-attacking spark. Several times he just accelerated away from tacklers and he showcased a good sidestep. One such attack ended when we was sort-of flipped in the tackle. A penalty, but no card (which seemed fair), and Lindenwood took the lineout deep into Navy territory. 

Eventually the back-and-forth would lead to a scrum on the right side for Lindenwood. Peignon scampered right, was caught just short of the line and clearly heard flanker Dunvan Krige call his name. Peignon's head snapped to his left, where he saw Krige coming on and a perfect offload allowed the flanker to go over.

Peignon's conversion attempt read the wind perfectly and it curved over to make it 12-10.

Now Lindenwood was on the ascendency and they worked to push their advantage. A half-break into the Navy 22 was ended because the Midshipmen were so quick to the breakdown and stole the ball back. Another break, this time from No.8 Neal Moylett needed just one more Lindenwood player to be there for a try to be on—instead Krieger made a try-saving tackle and then was over the ball to earn the penalty.

Time frittered away. With five minutes to go Peignon had a penalty attempt, but it curved left and was no good. Navy, for their part, were content to pump the ball downfield (two such attempts rolled dead; another looked to be going there too but ended up banging off the post).

Late in the game Lindenwood had one more chance with an attacking lineout. This was almost a make-or-break moment. A Navy hand disrupted the throw, however, and referee Lex Weiner called a knock-on. We told you lineouts would matter.

A weird moment came just at the end of the game. Navy had the ball and understood time to be up. The pass back to Krieger, so he could kick to touch, was dropped as a Lindenwood player came right down Krieger's throat. The Navy fullback chased the ball, and as he was tackled attempted to kick it to touch while facing his own tryline—disaster as the kick just want almost straight backward. Somehow flyhalf Landon Opp rescued the ball, but in the end it was all called back for Lindenwood being offside. Sanity returned and Gray tapped and kicked to touch to end the game.

Frustration for Lindenwood, who notch their 7th-straight semifinal loss; jubilation for Navy, which maybe got the bounce of the ball this time around but remain undefeated.

This was a monstrously intense game to play in. No player who took the field should be anything but proud of what they did. There were mistakes, to be sure, but everything these players could put into it, they put into it.

Along with Darling, Lindenwood's midfield pairing of Rhys Smith and Stephin Alberts impressed, and Connor Devos's bleeding face is perhaps the most fitting image of what the forwards put into it.

For Navy, Gray was a stay but not in a spectacular way. Instead he just did whatever was asked of him and did it 100%. The front row, led by Bullock, was immense, and Jack McMahon was the main man in those lineout steals. Among the backs, the always alert Mac Laney at scrumhalf was very strong, and at fullback Krieger, a freshman, was special.

Navy 12
Tries: Gray, Bullock
Convs: Krieger

Lindenwood 10
Tries: Krige
Convs: Peignon
Pens: Peignon