Looking to set the tone for the 2008 season, Army sprint football came up short on their final drive Sunday against Navy to lose 14-7 at Shea Stadium here.
The loss gives Army a 1-2 start to the season as they are coming off a 2-5 record a year ago, their first losing record in 45 years and second in team history.
Undaunted, the team is working hard to get back on its feet and finish the season strong. They will have a chance to get their revenge against the Midshipmen Oct. 31 at Annapolis.
Sunday offered a glimpse of hope as many individuals tried to carry the team to victory. One of their most prominent players is Firstie wide receiver Geoffrey Phillips, who finished the game with 11 receptions for 120 yards.
Phillips, coming off a strong cow season where he finished with 21 receptions and second in the Collegiate Sprint Football League with 398 yards receiving, has put up strong numbers three games into the season with 24 receptions for 315 yards and one touchdown.
He finished last season with five touchdowns, two against Navy, and has three career touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Phillips said, “there’s nothing like (scoring against Navy),” and those three touchdowns were the biggest accomplishments of his collegiate career.
However, it was the first game he played against Navy in 2006 that he considers his best moment of his playing career despite not getting a touchdown that day.
“The first Navy game I played was at Kean University in New Jersey my (yearling) season and it was exciting,” Phillips said. “There were about 5,000 people there and the atmosphere was insane. Just to experience on how hard fought an Army/Navy game is and to do it for the first time was big.”
Phillips has come a long way from his plebe year when he didn’t make the cut as the team kept only three wide receivers and he was put on the junior varsity squad.
The 5-foot, 10-inch, 165-pound, North Ridgeville, Ohio, native made the adjustment and worked vigorously in the weight room to make the team a year later.
“(Fellow Firsties) wide receiver Dewy Hansen, running back Pat Toffler and I were three of the last four guys to be put on the JV squad that year,” Phillips said. “It’s a pretty good feeling that all three of us are starting now and that we all stuck with it.”
Army has used two quarterbacks equally this season with Firstie signal callers Bobby Miner and Abe Payne sharing the load. Phillips has found a rapport with both guys and his rapport with Miner goes back to their first days at the academy.
“Bobby and I have been playing together since Beast Barracks, and we’ve grown together and he’s one of my best friends,” Phillips said. “It’s one of those quarterback/ receiver relationships where it translates onto the field no matter if we are doing one-on-one drills or seven-on-seven drills. He just knows where I’m going to be because we have that bond.”
Sprint football head coach Mark West is impressed with Phillips and his abilities to make things happen on the field. Phillips not only starts at wide receiver, but he is also the team’s lead kickoff and punt returner.
“Geoffrey is a special player. He makes things happen,” West said. “He’s a top notch player in terms of making plays and has good speed and good hands.
“What Geoffrey also brings to the game is a mental toughness that I hope our other players try to emulate,” he added. “Looking at Geoff’s background, he’s a former hockey goalie in high school and hockey goalie’s have a different type of mentality ... he’s mentally and physically tough, and those are special traits that he brings to the team.”
West has been pleased with the play of his quarterbacks early in the season as they stepped into leadership roles. While the offense has been progressing, the defense has stepped up its play and has not allowed more than 17 points in a game this season.
West said the play of their Firstie defensive backs Chris Carter and Antonio Manzano has been strong. The return of Firstie linebacker Nate Drake from injury was big Sunday as he got a sack and the play of Yearling linebacker Bryan Girouard has been magnificent as he added two sacks and an interception against Navy Sunday.
While some individuals are shining, West is big on getting the team as a whole on the right path. He is a first-year head coach and wants the team to forget the fact they had a losing season a year ago.
“Anybody would be down after having a losing season, but you have to put that in the past,” West said. “We don’t dwell on it. We’re focused on the future, and that’s our team’s motto this year, Fast Forward,’ because we want to take the program forward as quickly as possible.
“I want the guys on this team to establish their own legacy and in order to do that, you can’t dwell on the past,” he added. “So we’re focused and it comes down to getting better every day.”
For West, playing Navy brought back a flood of memories to the days he called signals for Army from 1988-90 and led the Cadets to three league championships and two victories over Navy.
He’s hoping the team takes the lessons he learned and apply it to their collegiate careers because the biggest loss of his career was against Navy, from which his squad learned.
“We lost my sophomore year (to Navy), a very bitter defeat in that we went into the game undefeated and had a chance for an undefeated season, and they ruined it,” West said. “The next two years, we made sure we didn’t let that happen again, and we won my junior and senior seasons.”
In fact, the three years he started at quarterback for Army, they had a 17-1-1 record. It’s from the loss that his team built its strength and that the current squad needs to give a little more to win those games.
“It’s one of my responsibilities as someone who has beaten Navy to try to get across to them what it takes to beat them,” West said. “It’s a special game, and while the last thing I want to do is put undue pressure on these kids, I do want them to know that it takes a special kind of effort to beat Navy. Whether you are expected to win or whether you are the underdog, when that game takes place, it’s anybody’s game, and that’s been proven throughout the history of Army/Navy football.”
West was an assistant coach on the team when Army last beat Navy in 2003 when he served here from 2001-04.
An Army lieutenant colonel, West is an instructor in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership department where he teaches leadership to the cow class. Influencing the next generation of Army leaders is a job that he takes very seriously and is very proud to have placed upon him.
“I admit I love teaching the leadership course probably as much as I love coaching football,” West explained. “Having an opportunity to impact these future leaders and knowing I was at one time in their shoes, it’s very gratifying knowing that I can give back to an institution that I owe so much to.”
Whether it’s in the classroom or on the playing field, West is thrilled to pass along his wisdom that will someday prove vital in situations more austere than in an academy environment.
The players are taking his words to heart as they learn the life lessons taught playing athletics and from a coach who wants them to set high expectations for themselves and do whatever is necessary to meet those expectations and settle for nothing less than their very best.
Phillips applauds West’s energy and knows he’s the type of officer he would like to be one day.
“He has the same long day as we do teaching classes, but he’s still got a hop in his step and is always chatting it up with the guys,” Phillips remarked. “It’s really nice to come down (to the field) when we’re dragging a little bit and see him on a whole other energy level, and it gets us pumped for practice.
“He’s definitely a role model for everybody on the team. We respect him as an officer and our coach,” said the possible future aviation officer. “We see how he operates the football program and how he is with his Family, and he’s definitely a role model as an officer and a man.”