ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Jonathan Gazaille was the last player to leave Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
As the stadium emptied and the sound of "Navy Blue and Gold" drifted into the November night, the senior wide receiver walked to the locker room alongside classmates Jerad Fehr and Matt Shibata. Gazaille reached the edge of the concrete tunnel, paused and turned around, gazing out onto the field. It was the last time that he — and the rest of the senior class — would play in their home stadium.
"It's bittersweet," senior slot back Gee Gee Greene said after Navy's 21-10 victory over Texas State on Senior Day. "I'm glad with what I've done and what I've accomplished while I was here, but at the same time you're thinking it's about to be over."
The Class of 2013 has played an instrumental role in Navy's turnaround this season. After losing three of their first four games, the Midshipmen have won six of their past seven and clinched a spot in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, thanks in no small part to the 27 seniors on the roster.
With the steady leadership of seniors such as Greene, Bo Snelson, Keegan Wetzel and Brye French, Navy has battled back in a number of close games this year. Three of its seven wins have been by seven points or fewer.
"This game — and a lot of our wins — have been grind-it-out games," head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We're not Alabama, we're not LSU — we've got to grind out all of our wins. It's just the way it is. So I'm very proud of them — I'm very proud of our seniors. One way or another, they found a way to get a 'W.'"
Sixty-one plebes arrived at Navy football practice in 2009, but only 27 were honored at midfield before Saturday's game. Some, such as Greene, have played in almost every contest and developed into key contributors. Others, including Fehr and Shibata, have played sparingly.
But getting a win on Senior Day, in front of a crowd of 31,004 that included many family members and friends, was meaningful to everyone.
"I don't really feel like it's the last time," Wetzel said of his final home game. "It's going to be weird, thinking back on these times in the near future and knowing that they won't happen again. Like I said, it probably won't happen again until I watch these guys play their spring ball."
Wetzel personifies the senior mentality. After entering the season with only one start and a dozen appearances, he has recorded 63 tackles and a team-high 13.5 tackles for loss despite being battered and bruised all year. He and the rest of the senior class have battled all season, challenging their younger players to do the same.
"These guys have worked so hard to get here," freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds explained. "[Keegan] was my escort when I came up to visit, and I just heard him talking about how much he wanted this year, so it's good to see him having a great year, and it's good to send them off with a win."
The Class of 2013 has averaged eight wins over its four years in Annapolis, but its lasting legacy could be decided in a few weeks. The Midshipmen will travel to Philadelphia on December 8 for their annual matchup against Army. A win would give Navy's seniors their second Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, and — perhaps more importantly — a 4-0 record against the Black Knights.
But Niumatalolo wasn't thinking about that Saturday. As he sat down at his postgame news conference, a pink lei draped over his shoulders, Niumatalolo was more eager to talk about the play of his second class of recruits since taking over as head coach in 2008. Saturday's win was about them.
"All these guys have come from all across the country, from different states, different homes," he said. "To come here as seniors and finish out this way, [I'm] very happy for them."
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