- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — Navy’s football team will convene for its first preseason practice Wednesday, just as it did the past several years.

Its nearly five-month undertaking is aimed at winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and collecting a bowl victory. Nothing new.

And the Midshipmen will begin camp while many figure they will simply churn out another eight victories, just as they have for the better part of a decade.

A fascinating side effect of Navy’s ascent over the past eight years is the external presumption it will continue to thrive. For a program not far removed from two decades of mostly losing seasons, it’s a curious development.

Such assumptions gnaw at Ken Niumatalolo, who enters his fourth season as the Mids’ coach ever-vigilant for the threat of complacency seeping into his program.

“That’s the thing I have to fight the most,” Niumatalolo said last week. “We work hard as a staff to make sure we never lose sight of that and make sure our players never lose sight of that. That’s first and foremost: Make sure internally we don’t ever [take it for granted]. Last year’s over with. Throw that schedule away. But it’s also make sure people around here from facilities to administration, that let’s not cut any corners.”

Every now and then, he senses it. Maybe it’s from someone on campus. Perhaps it’s a concern about the quality of meals his team enjoys on the road. Whatever it is, his awareness of even a slight slippage in priorities is acute.

“They need to understand how hard it is to win Division I football, especially at the Naval Academy,” Niumatalolo said. “People around here say ‘Oh, you guys win.’ Dude, don’t even say that. You have no clue how hard it is to win. That’s probably my No. 1 battle.”

Niumatalolo said athletic director Chet Gladchuk and the academy’s administration consistently are supportive and responsive to any concerns. And worries are understandable, considering the historical context of the program’s recent results.

Navy is the first service academy to reach a bowl game in eight straight seasons. It also is the first service academy to collect at least eight wins in eight straight seasons. The Mids’ run is both impressive and atypical.

Then there’s Navy’s past. The Mids managed only two winning seasons between 1983 and 2002, with a solitary bowl appearance wedged in after the 1996 season. In some years, Navy was mediocre. Five times, it lost 10 games, including in former coach Paul Johnson’s first season (2002).

The Mids savored nothing but bowl trips since. Yet their margin for error remains slim, even if there are times Navy makes winning seasons seem easier than they really are.

“I believe that people lose sight of that,” Niumatalolo said. “They think you just pop wins out and it just happens, but if you go back and look at our games, they’re nail-biters.”

Indeed, Navy won four games by a touchdown or less in each of the past three seasons. Of the Mids’ 66 games since 2006, 30 were decided by eight points or fewer.

Those frequent occurrences - evident last year in the form of victories such as squeakers against Wake Forest and Central Michigan or early losses to Maryland and Air Force — are an easy way to reinforce to players that little is guaranteed.

“We say, ‘Don’t mistake routine with commitment,’ ” quarterback Kriss Proctor said. “It’s easy to get in a routine and just go through the motions and punch the clock. The leaders on this team try to preach to get better every day and win everything you do.”

That will especially be true over the next month, as Navy builds toward its Sept. 3 opener against Delaware. Even a game against a team from a lower division (albeit a consistent national power) illustrates the weekly challenge for the Mids. The average weight of Navy’s projected offensive linemen is 275 pounds; the Blue Hens’ average starting offensive lineman is 292 pounds.

Niumatalolo said that despite a generally easygoing demeanor, he’s willing to “ruffle some feathers” to ensure a casual approach to his program does not emerge.

“Sometimes I get a little nervous about that, that sometimes guys are like ‘Don’t worry, football’s fine, they can practice here’ or ‘They don’t need this for practice,’ ” Niumatalolo said. “I say ‘Let’s wait a minute. Let’s make sure if you’re creating a great meal, you keep adding the same spices.’ “