By Matt Decker (Leonard Wood)December 13, 2017
The Fort Leonard Wood Army flag-football team reclaimed the championship of the annual match-up with a combined Navy and U.S. Marine Corps team on Saturday, taking home the winning plaque with a 30-28 victory.
With two powerhouse offenses at play, the teams traded leads multiple times until the final minute, when the Army defense was able to hold off a final push by their Navy counterparts.
"What a game!" Col. Tracy Lanier, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander told players as he and Command Sgt. Maj. Larry Orvis, USAG Fort Leonard Wood command sergeant major, presented the plaque to the Army team.
"We said we were going to have a hard game and some good competition -- and that's exactly what we had," Lanier said.
It was the 13th win by the Army team in the series' 14 contests, and the first to follow a win by the Navy team. It was also the hardest-fought game of the season for Army quarterback Justin Cramer, who had helped lead the 554th Engineer Battalion to a victory in the Commander's Cup Flag Football Tournament two weeks before. Although the Army team included players from across the installation, the majority of players on the roster came from the 554th Engr. Bn. squad.
"This was definitely the toughest team we played all year," said Cramer, who threw for three touchdowns and rushed for one Saturday. "It was a really tight game today. Last year was tough, too, but I think this year both teams were really well prepared. We came out and gave it our all, and we got the win as a team."
Being able to represent the Army on the football field was a privilege, according to Jabari Gamble, who scored early in the first half.
"It's a lot of camaraderie and pride around the installation," Gamble said.
Also proud to represent his branch of service was Daniel Abruzzese-Johnson, who scored three touchdowns for the Navy team. The wide receiver was also impressed by the camaraderie shown between teams.
"Honestly it was kind of cool," Abruzzese-Johnson said. "I've only been in the Navy a few months, and it was really cool to see how we could be competitive with each other but still, in the end, be there for each other -- we're all out here for the same thing whether Army or Navy."
It was the Navy team that scored the first points of the game. On the first series following the opening kickoff, Navy quarterback Samuel Lance advanced the ball to the 30-yard line on short passes to Nicholas Davis and Nigel Moffitt. On a second-down play, Lance threw a 30-yard pass to Abruzzese-Johnson in the end zone for six points. Lance then ran the ball in on the following 2-point conversion play to give Navy an 8-0 lead.
However, it didn't take long for the Army team to reply. Cramer rushed for 30 yards and threw a 15-yard pass to receiver Benard Mccree to complete two first downs over five plays, placing the ball at the 5-yard line. From there, Cramer rushed for the Army team's first touchdown and ran in the conversion to tie the game, 8-8.
The Navy offense ran into difficulty on the next series, losing yardage on an offsides penalty and having passes knocked down by Army defenders. But on a fourth-down play at their own 36-yard line, Lance threw a short pass to Davis, who caught it at midfield and ran the rest of the way for a touchdown. While Navy enjoyed a 14-8 lead, the Army's secondary broke up the 2-point conversion attempt.
On the next series, Cramer would complete a 30-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Smedley to tie the game, then run in the conversion on a quarterback keeper to give Army a 16-14 advantage.
"I knew we needed to score, so I just executed the play," Smedley said after the game.
Neither team would score again until the second half, when, on a fourth-and-goal play, Cramer would throw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Gamble. A short pass to Gamble from the 5-yard line would add two points, putting Army up 24-14.
The Navy cut its deficit on its next series when, on a third-down play at the 30-yard line, Lance threw a short pass to Abruzzese-Johnson, who scrambled the next 20 yards to the end zone for his second touchdown of the game. A five-yard Lance-to-Abruzzese-Johnson pass added two more points, making the score 24-22 in Army's favor.
The Navy's defense had its best showing on the next series, halting Army's progress at midfield, where the ball was turned over on downs.
From there, Lance moved the ball forward on a quarterback keeper and a pass to Davis, but penalties erased most of Navy's gains. Then, on fourth down, Lance once again found Abruzzese-Johnson in the end zone, connecting with a 30-yard pass that, despite a failed conversion attempt, gave Navy its first lead since the early part of the game: Navy 28, Army 24.
Teams traded possessions as the final five minutes of the game played out. Cramer engineered two consecutive first downs with passes to Marty Smith and Waddell Tollison, but an interception by Davis gave the ball back to the Navy. However, four plays later, the Navy was stalled deep in its own territory and was forced to punt.
Smedley returned the ball to the 30-yard-line on the punt return, and two plays later would give Army the lead back, hauling in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Cramer. The conversion attempt failed, but Army held a two-point lead with just over a minute left to play.
Penalties again plagued the Navy offense, which again lost most of its gains on a false start, an offensive-pass-interference call and a sack by Army defender Dashawn May. With less than seven seconds on the clock on a fourth-down play from their own 38-yard line, Navy attempted an old-style sweep to the left with running backs laterally pitching the ball to each other. A fumble on the play as time expired ended the game.
All in all, Cramer said he felt his team, "did awesome."
"I think it's just heart," Cramer said. "Everybody coming together, playing their spot in the position they're supposed to play and just doing what they're supposed to do."
As one of several 554th Engr. Bn. players that made up the Army team, Smedley said he was confident in the Army team's chances.
"We had a great flag-football season, so we had no doubt we could do it again. We just had to take advantage of our opportunities."
After the awards presentation, players from both Army and Navy teams gathered for photos and a post-game cookout. Several players and fans gathered at Blackjack Bar and Grill to watch the collegiate Army/Navy game, which ended in a 14-13 win for the Army Black Knights over the Navy Midshipmen.