BOULDER, Colo. – There are few rivalries in sports that can mirror the passion and history of the one between the United States Air Force Academy and the United States Military Academy at West Point. When combined with a fierce contact sport like rugby, the rivalry only intensifies.
“It’s a hugely important rivalry to both institutions; to our former players, alumni, and the current team,” said Army Head Coach Matt Sherman.
The newest chapter in the storied rivalry will be written Friday, Nov. 6, when the Black Knights challenge the Zoomies at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
To further explain the meaningfulness of such a rivalry, first-year West Point man Sherman borrowed an explanation from current Army assistant and former West Point student-athlete Major Mike Ziegelhofer.
“Years from now you may only vividly remember a handful of games during your Army Rugby career, those will always include the games against the other service academies,” he said.
Additional motivation is far from needed for the two teams this week, but with each coming off losses, Air Force and Army would love to get back into the win column at the expense of their rivals.
For Air Force, the fall has had its share of mixed results. After opening the season with a clinical win over Wyoming, the Zoomies came out surprisingly flat against Colorado State, and paid for it with a 56-13 defeat. Air Force corrected many of its errors in a tight win over the Buffaloes, but couldn’t quite keep pace with the Utes in its most recent run-out, a 41-30 loss at Utah.
Regardless of the up-and-down results, the Zoomie coaching staff has seen consistent progress throughout the program.
“We have shown steady improvement since the beginning of the season,” first-year Air Force Head Coach Denny Merideth stated. “Each of the matches taken in context shows tremendous development.”
Assisting the new coaching staff in the youthful Zoomies development is inside center Ben Burmester. The hard-nosed runner hasn’t been piling up tries at the pace he did last season, but has been equally effective between the touch lines, all the while leading from the front.
In the West Point camp, back-to-back losses to Iona and Kutztown have derailed Army’s chances of a second consecutive Rugby East title. However, the recent losing streak has only fueled an already determined group of Brothers.
“While we’re disappointed with those results, what’s more disappointing is that we felt in those games our performance wasn’t our best,” explained Sherman. “We’ve turned that disappointment into motivation to achieve our best performance of the year, and return to being the improving team we were at the start of the season.”
Obviously, both teams desperately want a win tomorrow, however, both teams appear to be equally concerned with being a better rugby team than they were a week prior. For Army, that means playing with more discipline and composure.
“When we try to press too hard to force great things to happen, we get into trouble with penalties, 50-50 loose passes, and, at times, getting away from our plan,” noted Sherman.
The potential returns of two key playmakers may boost the Army attack. Scrum half Jake Banarhall and center Andrew Fargo, who have combined for nine tries on the season, were both missing from West Point’s starting lineup in the team’s loss to Kutztown.
In the case of the 17th-ranked Zoomies, Coach Merideth wants to see “improvement in tackling height and possession.”
The annual rivalry will take place a day before the two military academies do battle in football. Rugby’s version of the competition will kick off Nov. 6 at noon MT.