Despite loss in bowl, Navy seniors achieved much
SAN DIEGO » Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo left Qualcomm Stadium on Thursday night clearly unfulfilled.
As he spoke with reporters following the Mids' 35-32 defeat to Utah in the Poinsettia Bowl, the disappointment and anguish was visible. Displaying a wide range of emotions, from fist raising on the sidelines to quiet, reserved tones in his session with reporters, Niumatalolo was able to reflect on his head coaching debut.
In leading the Mids for the first time after the departure of Paul Johnson to Georgia Tech this month, Niumatalolo's night will likely be remembered more for what Navy did not achieve than what his team accomplished.
For starters, the Mids lost their second consecutive bowl game. The season ended with an 8-5 mark, their most losses since they went 6-5 in 2003.
However, for Niumatalolo and his players, the numbers are reserved for fans and sportswriters, and are not a true barometer of the achievements of a highly successful senior class.
The group finished with 35 wins, one off the school mark, and won 11 straight against the rival service academies, resulting in five straight Commander-in-Chief Trophies.
"I could not be more proud of our defense and our team," said sophomore linebacker Ross Pospisil, who finished with 10 tackles against Utah with one interception. "What the seniors accomplished was just amazing. They have a great legacy for us to carry."
On the down side from the Utah loss, Niumatalolo cited the fact that Navy did not finish off plays and was left vulnerable to the speed and athleticism of the resourceful Utes defense. Though he managed to focus on the achievements of the seniors, the former Hawaii quarterback and assistant did offer a glimpse into the future.
Planning ahead, he pointed out the initial effort will be in recruiting. The service academies are at a disadvantage due to high academic standards and the five-year post-graduation military commitment.
Niumatalolo said he's ready to hit the road. Though Hawaii may not be his first stop, the islands are definitely on his itinerary.
"High school football there is as good as there is in the country," said Niumatalolo, who quarterbacked Radford High to the 1981 Prep Bowl title. "There are many, many good players, and we'll do our best to get some of these guys."
Niumatalolo was responsible for recruiting starting quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, a Star Bulletin 2003 first team all-state utility player from Kapolei High.
If anything, the offense may see a tweak here and there, changes that address the few roadblocks encountered Thursday night.
If not for speedy defensive backs and linebackers who pursued with force, the Mids might have fared better against Utah. With Kaheaku-Enhada directing the triple option, runners had a difficult time turning the corner and making something out of nothing.
"You can always do better," Niumatalolo said of his offense. "I'm always assessing our options and I'm sure we'll come up with things which will improve on what we accomplished."
Niumatalolo emphasized that the program was highly indebted to the core of seniors, led by running backs Reggie Campbell, Zerbin Singleton and Adam Ballard, linebackers Irv Spencer and Matt Wimsatt, wide receiver O.J. Washington, and kicker Joey Bullen.
The program, the coach said, wasn't about numbers and statistics. The barometer of this class, and the academy, transcends what is witnessed on the football field.
"I wish we could have sent them out on a better note," Niumatalolo said. "There is no NFL for these players, just a very important assignment in service to their country ahead. We will not forget the seniors who brought us to this point."
Their legacy is also entrenched in the hearts and minds of those returning.
"Their leadership was incredible," said junior running back Eric Kettani, who set a Poinsettia Bowl record with a 43-yard touchdown run. "The way (Ballard) explained things and showed me the ropes is something I'll never forget. They have passed the torch to us and we'll uphold everything they believed and accomplished."