Although mascots were not making unscheduled trips between West Point and Annapolis this week, that does not mean the Army-Navy lacrosse game here Sunday is generating less emotion than any other sports rivalry between the two service academies.
The fact that both teams are nationally ranked year after year makes the game even more meaningful.
"It's been building up for a week. It's just an emotional game," said Dick Szlasa, who has never lost to the Cadets in his nine years as Navy's coach. "The things that go on are things that the public doesn't see."
Salza said members of the sixth-ranked Midshipmen have been introduced nightly at dinner, and each company completes its sound-off in the dining hall with the cry, "Beat Army."
Beating Navy is something the Cadets have not done lately. The Mids (4-2) have won nine straight over Army, increasing their lead in the series to 32-19-3. Although Navy has had more overall talent in recent years, the margin of victory in the last four games has been three goals or less. Last year, Army blew a 5-0 lead on its home field and lost, 12-10.
Because of injuries, the 12th-ranked Cadets (3-2) have been using 10 freshmen regularly. This year, the rivalry picks up in midseason because of the NCAA playoff schedule. In previous years, the game was played at the end of each team's season, sometimes two weeks after exams, giving injuries a chance to heal.
"I've been going to church a lot this week, praying for some of the injuries to heal," said Army Coach Dick Edell, whose 36-13 record at West Point includes four losses to the Mids.
Sunday's opponent may prove to be the miracle cure the doctors have been unable to provide for the Cadets. Bob Henry, a second-team all-America defenseman last year, is needed to hold down Syd Abernathy, who is Navy's top scoring threat (18 goals, 11 assists), but he has not played since tearing a hamstring in the opening game.
"If it is humanly possible, he will play," said Edell. "He will be out there only because it will be Navy. That will be the final determinate of every injury we have."
Navy carried into the season the distinction of being the only team to qualify for the every NCAA playoff since they began in 1971. Szlasa said that may have been the reason for losses earlier this year to third-ranked Syracuse and 11th-ranked Rutgers. "I think maybe I've created too much pressure pushing to make sure that we are the only team to make the playoffs every year," he said. "It's been my fault. I had us worrying too much about winning and losing and not enough about preparing for each game."
But he says that problem has been overcome and that the second season for the Mids will begin Sunday. For the first time, a solid midfield line will be running with attackmen Abernathy and sophomore Rich Wehman (13 goals, eight assists). Szlasa has decided to put Jim Bianchi, Phil Skalniak and Dave Jones together and keep them as a unit. The defense is headed by all-America Mike McLaughlin.
"We are about rock bottom," Edell said of Army's personnel coming into the game.The Cadets, who have produced all-America goalies for four straight years, have been relying on freshman George Slabowski in the nets (74 percent saves to keep them in games when the offense has been quiet. In last weekend's 10-6 win over 15th-ranked Hofstra, however, midfielder Harry Jackson's three goals gave Edell reason to be optimistic.
The late scheduling in previous years gave both teams extra time to work on special plays for the game, and neither coach expects the early playing date to deter that aspect of the strategy.
"I'm sure we'll see two or three new wrinkles," said Szlasa, who knows almost as much about Army's personnel as he does about his own. "They may double-team on the out of bounds, and against Hofstra they ran six mid-fielders. He's always doing something different every year."
Injuries have not kept Edell from thinking up some surprises. "We are going to do some strange things personnelwise -- maybe unorthodox is a better word. We may move some long and short sticks around at midfield," he said. "We've got a few things planned . . . We have some things I'm not telling anyone about."