As if this rivalry game, between two of the nation's five federal service academies, didn't already have enough meaning behind it, there is perhaps even more emotion packed into Saturday's football game featuring the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
"It's a really cool experience," said Coast Guard senior linebacker and co-captain Eugene Bizer of the traditional Coast Guard-Merchant Marine matchup. "You can definitely tell it's different than all the other games. They're always the most physical. By the end you're so exhausted."
And now for the 2020 edition.
Coast Guard, under first-year head coach C.C. Grant, will travel to Kings Point, N.Y., at noon Saturday (ESPN3) for its annual game against Merchant Marine, facing the Mariners in back-to-back games for only the second time in program history.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, it is the only game of the season for both teams, which also concluded the 2019 season against each other.
Coast Guard athletes were informed of the cancellation of the fall season on July 17. It was announced on Sept. 21 that the football, men's soccer and volleyball teams would compete against Merchant Marine and one-game seasons followed for the bulk of the other fall sports as well.
Suddenly, instead of Coast Guard's 22 seniors handing off the baton to the underclassmen, as was taking place when the green light came, there were conversations once again about things such as who would start at quarterback and the intricacies of defending the triple-option.
"Honestly, I think the big thing was getting the seniors to buy in," Grant said. "Not buy in exactly, but they're here in July and football's canceled. We told them we'd have maybe 15 practices and then you guys would pull away and let some of the young people step up to serve leadership roles.
"You can't go 0-60 (mph). We went from (practicing) two times a week to three times a week to four times a week. The last three weeks we went every day but Sundays. We're all in."
John Barbera, a senior and the team's co-captain along with Bizer, will start at quarterback. It will be the first career start for Barbera, who served as a backup his first three seasons behind 2020 graduate Ryan Jones.
Grant, meanwhile, will coach the first game of his career after serving as an assistant coach for 21 seasons under head coach Bill George, who retired following the 2019 season. Grant was formerly the defensive coordinator.
Both Barbera and Grant say the game is not about them.
"The senior class is in a really good position (for the game)," the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Barbera said. "We have guys that have established ourselves as role models and leaders of the team.
"For me, it's not so much about making my first start as it is being with this group of men. We have the opportunity to go out there and share all the gifts we've been given and the work we've put in. This is a special group, special guys, special coaches. We have people who have devoted their lives to this. For our guys it's about being together, being in unison as a team."
Barbera said the team has made considerable strides.
"I think it was a lot to process," he said of the return to game preparation. "I think we've gradually progressed, trying to make each day better than the last. We haven't had that test yet. I think the goal is to peak at the right time. Stepping off the bus on Saturday, Nov. 14, and being ready to win mentally, this will be when the morale of the team is the highest."
The Bears will start eight seniors on each side of the ball, including three players, Bizer, defensive lineman Philip Orlando and wide receiver Justin Moffatt, who were named last year as New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference second team all-stars.
Moffatt led the league with 66 catches and had a career-high 872 yards to go with five touchdown receptions. Moffatt is only the second receiver in Coast Guard history to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark and trails the Bears' all-time leader, Christian Lee, 2,356-2,163 in overall yards.
Orlando led the NEWMAC with 13 tackles for a loss and eight sacks and Bizer was first in the league with 110 tackles.
Merchant Marine won last year's game 56-41 in New London, with Coast Guard finishing 5-5 overall, 2-5 in the NEWMAC. This will be the 49th meeting between the schools, played annually for the Secretaries' Cup, with Merchant Marine representing the Department of Transportation and Coast Guard the Department of Homeland Security.
"It's a matter of people doing their jobs," Grant said, "doing the small things right."
"I feel bad the underclassmen haven't gotten to experience games throughout the season," Bizer said. "Now it's the biggest game of the season. It's like starting for the first time in the Super Bowl. But they've been picking it up well, for sure."
This article is written by Vickie Fulkerson from The Day, New London, Conn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.