Firsties reflect on Army-Navy rivalry before last game as cadets

By Brandon O’Connor PV Assistant Editor

December 12th, 2019 | In Focus, News
 Class of 2020 Cadet Murray Johnston, left, takes part in the West Point marathon team's ball run prior to the 2018 Army-Navy Game. Johnston will particpate in his fourth Army-Navy Ball run this week. Courtesy of Class of 2020 Cadet Murray Johnston
  Class of 2020 Cadet Haley Watson, left, attends the 2018 Army-Navy Game. Courtesy of Class of 2020 Cadet Haley Watson
  Class of 2020 Cadet Joshua Phillips, right, attends the 2018 Army-Navy Game as a member of the Cadet Spirit Band. Courtesy of Class of 2020 Cadet Joshua Phillips.

Saturday, the cadets in the U.S. Military Academy’s Class of 2020 will try to do something few have done in the academy’s history—beat Navy four years in a row.
When the members of the class arrived at West Point on Reception Day in 2016, Army football had found itself at one of the lowest points in its storied history. The Black Knights had lost to their archrival, the Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy, 14 years in a row in the annual Army-Navy Game.
What had once been a back and forth contest between equals, had become a lopsided rivalry dominated by Navy.
That losing streak now feels like distant history as the Class of 2020 stands on the cusp of becoming the first class since 1997 to go undefeated against Navy during its time at the academy.
“I knew I wanted to be a part of something special when I got here, and we were able to flip the switch in the Army-Navy Game,” Class of 2020 Cadet Elijah Riley, a starting defensive back on the football team, said. “My freshman year, sophomore year, junior year (we won) and we’re looking to do the same thing this year.”
As plebes (freshmen) in 2016, the cadets in the Class of 2020 headed to Baltimore for their first Army-Navy Game. They had not been scarred by losses like their classmates. The Black Knights had lost by four in a close game the year before, lost by a touchdown in 2014 and the firsties (seniors) at the time had seen Navy blow them out their plebe year.
Entering the 2016 Army-Navy Game, it had already been a season of change for the Army team. After winning only two games the year before, the Black Knights already had six before the rivalry game and were bowl bound for the first time since 2010.
Then, Ahmad Bradshaw, USMA Class of 2017, scored a touchdown with six minutes remaining to put Army up 21-17, before the defense sealed the victory for Army ending Navy’s longest winning streak in the series.
“It was absolutely crazy just knowing it had been so long since we won,” Class of 2020 Cadet Joshua Phillips said. “It was just unreal. When the game clock ran out, it was just like we couldn’t believe it. That’s when we all rushed the field. It was pretty special though, especially for it to happen during our plebe year.”
Cadets threw their hats in the air, rushed the field and let 14 years of pent-up frustration erupt into jubilation. Then for the first time since 2001, the corps and the Army fans had the chance to sing second as the victor.
“I remember people just throwing me over the side of the wall and just rushing the field and losing my hat,” Class of 2020 Cadet Haley Watson said. “It was probably like a six-foot jump that we made and falling on the ground and just not even caring and running up to cameras and screaming in the lens of the camera just so excited. There was just such an energy that could only be felt by being there. It was really cool.”
Maj. Anthony Fuscellaro, USMA Class of 2005, who will be leading the pregame flyover Saturday also saw Army win his plebe year at the academy. He then never had the chance to see Army win again until he had reached the rank of major in the Army.
The Class of 2020 would prove to be considerably more fortunate than Fuscellaro and his classmates as the Black Knights once again secured victory in 2017 when Navy missed a last second field goal in the driving snow.
As Riley prepares to take the field for the final time in an Army uniform Saturday, it was the moment in 2017 when the Navy field goal went wide left, the corps once again rushed the field and he then began making snow angels on the field that he said stands out as his favorite Army-Navy moment.
By last year, the script had flipped all the way from 2015 as Army entered the game as the heavy favorite during one of its best seasons in decades and beat the Mids in a game that was never really in doubt. But this year, Army once again enters the game as underdogs. The Black Knights have had an up and down season, while Navy will arrive in Philadelphia nationally-ranked.
“Not having a loss in our four years at West Point would be a really big deal,” Class of 2020 Cadet Murray Johnston said. “I think we’re all kind of hedging our bets. We’re all nervous because we don’t want this to be the one that breaks it.”
Despite the odds seemingly being against them, the Class of 2020 refuses to be deterred. They entered the academy without the thought of losing. They felt victory from the get-go, have never endured a loss and don’t plan to on their way out of the academy.
“I can’t fathom walking away disappointed this year,” Watson said. “I have a lot of friends on the football team and that is something they can’t fathom either. All we know is winning at this point. We’re not willing to get familiar with losing. There’s just no other option going into this year.”
When the game kicks off Saturday, the members of the class will be looking for more than a win. They will be looking for eternal bragging rights over their rival. After entering the academy with Army on a 14-year losing streak, they have a chance to sweep the series and write a story none could have predicted when they arrived at the academy.
“That’s going to be a little bit of bragging rights for the Class of 2020,” Phillips said of their reaction if they go 4-0. “We’re never going to let that go. We probably need to put up a statue or something, or leave behind a mark or something that says, ‘Hey, the Class of 2020 was here,’ but that’s just going to be amazing and I’ll never forget it.”