Final exams add unexpected complication to Army-Navy game preparation

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — College football coaches are usually control freaks. They like to have every element of their program planned to the last detail and don’t like to be thrown any curveballs.

Needless to say, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo was a bit flummoxed when he found out that final exams were being held during the week leading up to the annual showdown with archrival Army. That has never happened before, even since the Army-Navy game was pushed back to the second weekend in December.

“This is unique, something I’ve never had to deal with. It’s been hard enough to beat these guys to begin with. Now we’re having finals in the same week. I guess we’re trying to make it even tougher,” Niumatalolo bemoaned last Thursday. “Mentally, guys are going to be dead. Guys will be staying up late studying for exams so I know they’ll be tired. We just have to be smart from a coaching standpoint and try to make sure most of our stuff is in early.”

Officials at both service academies agreed in 2009 to hold the Army-Navy game one week later than previous years so as not to conflict with the various conference championship games. It was thought by both sides and CBS Sports that Army-Navy should be the only FBS college football game of consequence on that particular Saturday.

Commander John Schofield, the Naval Academy public information officer, said the academic schedule for 2013-2014 remains the same as in previous years. That means it is simply a calendar oddity that Army-Navy football is being held on a later date than ever before, beating the previous mark of Dec. 12 by two days.

In recent years, the Naval Academy end-of-semester exams have been administered the week after the Army-Navy game and have affected the football team’s bowl preparations. It has become commonplace for Niumatalolo to conduct bowl game practices in the predawn hours so players had the rest of the day free to focus on exams.

Now Niumatalolo finds himself having to schedule practice later in the day to avoid the same problem during Army week. Navy is practicing from 5:30-6:40 p.m. this week, about an hour later than normal.

“In all my 16 years here, this is the hardest we’re going to have, schedule-wise, getting ready for Army,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s almost like somebody is saying ‘Now try to see if you can beat them during exam week.’ It’s not an ideal scenario when you’re trying to get ready for your most important football game. It is what it is so we have to deal with it.”

While coaches fret about conflicts with meetings, practices and film sessions along with overall focus, it’s the players who actually have to deal with juggling exam preparation with game preparation. Senior wide receiver Casey Bolena had finals for two classes on Monday — Underwater Acoustics and Sonar along with Law for the Junior Officer.

“It’s definitely a big challenge. I’m staying up real late studying, then waking up early, drinking a lot of coffee and either taking exams or doing review work all day,” Bolena said. “It’s not fun, but that’s what we do here. We just have to keep grinding until it’s over.”

Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds has three exams this week and said the one for physics will be the hardest. “It’s already difficult getting ready for a game without exams. It’s just another challenge, but we can’t complain and can’t make excuses,” he said.

Starting offensive guard Jake Zuzek felt fortunate that his examinations are spread out over the course of the week. The 310-pound junior got started with a final on Saturday and pretty much has one per day over the course of the week.

“I think there’s only one day that I have two so it hasn’t been a real overload,” said Zuzek, who chuckled when told he sounded like one of those super smart students who doesn’t worry about exams. “I wish.”

Niumatalolo said the situation is a strong reminder of the Naval Academy’s true mission.

“It just shows that this school, first and foremost, is about academics and producing leaders. Sports are not the most important thing here so we have to deal with it. I know Army doesn’t care that we’re taking exams this week.”

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