When the Black Knights take the field in the annual Army-Navy football game Saturday afternoon, their players will be doing more than suiting up for one of the most anticipated college football games of the year -- they'll be stepping into a tradition more than 100 years in the making.
Factor in a losing streak that has seen Army drop its past 10 contests to its most heated rival and you have a team and college community that's beyond pumped up for the weekend showdown.
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"Even if you don't know anything about college football, if you go to West Point, you want to beat Navy," said West Harrison native Stephen Ricciardi, a sophomore linebacker who'll be playing in his first Army-Navy matchup. "It always adds a little more to the game because of the huge rivalry."
Army comes into the game as an underdog, with a 2-9 record. Several betting agencies have Navy (7-4) a seven-point favorite.
At West Point, the anticipation for the game begins anew every September, and it's not uncommon for officers and cadets alike to approach players and express their hopes that they top Navy. This year, team members produced a YouTube parody of South Korean rapper PSY's smash hit "Gangnam Style" to help boost school spirit.
On Thursday night, thousands of Black Knight boosters swarmed West Point's campus to attend the team's annual pep rally and bonfire, a spectacle featuring the symbolic immolation of their opponent -- in this case, a 20-foot-long wooden ship emblazoned with the words "Sink Navy."
Hundreds of cadets made a grand entrance, led by the marching band onto the huge athletic field. Dancing and rapping, cadets formed a circle, pulling in spectators.
At the end of the night, the university's marathon team extended its 19-year tradition by beginning a marathon run, carrying the game ball from West Point to Philadelphia, the site of Saturday's game.
"High mileage is kind of what we do," said Soundbeach native Nick Juliano, 19, who said the runners' individual 12-mile stretches will give the cadets a chance to show off West Point pride as they make their way through Suffern and New Jersey.
Despite the pressure riding on Saturday's matchup, which is slated to begin at 3 p.m., the players insist they're staying focused by drilling as they would for any other game while trying to study Navy's offense and defense.
"[The game] is something the team looks at from the beginning of the year," said Monroe native and junior wide receiver Patrick Laird. "But we got to treat it as one game at a time."
But as the players look to keep cool ahead of Saturday's action, the game's 122-year tradition and pageantry will be tough to ignore. CBS will broadcast the contest nationally at 3 p.m., and for many of the players, it will mark their last competitive football game, as the graduating members will enter the service.
At the end of the game, both teams take turns facing the stands of their opponents' fans and sing their alma mater in a sign of mutual respect as U.S. service members, all part of a tradition that reminds the young men and women that in the big picture, they both play for the same team.
But such solidarity can wait for later, the players insist. For now, they have more pressing concerns.
"The biggest part of this game is coming away with a victory," Ricciardi said.