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CGA looks to salvage season by winning the Secretaries' Cup

New London — The importance of this rivalry is not to be understated.

It is a game between two of our nation's five military academies, the United States Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, a meeting that was played last year despite the cancellation of the remainder of both teams' seasons due to COVID-19.

It is both the memory of a lifetime for some players, for others something they've dreamed of.

There will be pageantry of all sorts.

"I could just remember back to my freshman year (a 26-12 win at Merchant Marine in 2018). I was just on kickoff and that was one of my greatest football memories," Coast Guard senior defensive end and captain Michael Palermo said. "I've been dreaming about this. There will be tears either way Saturday, either tears of joy or tears of sadness because it's over."

Coast Guard (2-7 overall, 0-5 New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference) meets Merchant Marine (7-1, 4-1) at noon Saturday at Cadet Memorial Field in a game played annually for the Secretaries' Cup.

The teams first played in 1949, with the Secretary's Cup established in 1980 while both academies were under the guise of the Secretary of Transportation. Coast Guard moved to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, thus making it the Secretaries' Cup. It will be televised on ESPN3.

"This rivalry game is more than just this," Coast Guard senior wide receiver and captain Damaso Jaime said. "It's two teams that have to go through a lot to play every Saturday. I've been looking forward to this day for the past four years. I still remember holding the trophy (when we won) down there."

The Bears face an unenviable matchup against Merchant Marine and its run-based triple-option offense, which leads the NEWMAC with 45.5 points per game and is led by senior quarterback Ian Blankenship. Blankenship has 1,067 yards and 15 touchdowns rushing, while he is 43-for-83 passing for 895 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception.

It is the final game in the rivalry for Merchant Marine coach Mike Toop, a graduate of the school who is in his 17th season as head coach. Toop announced that he will retire after the season.

Coast Guard, meanwhile, features a freshman quarterback in Joe Armentrout (37-for-78, 453 yards, 2 TDs, 3 INTs), who will start his third career game and will make his first appearance in the series. Jared Colletti is Coast Guard's leading rusher (166 carries, 724 yards, 3 TDs) and Jaime has a team-best 481 yards receiving and three touchdowns.

The Bears' defense allowed 60 points against Springfield on Oct. 9, another triple-option attack, but has allowed just 21.1 points per game aside from that. Palermo leads the defense with 68 tackles.

Jaime said this week there's no question the Bears will have to be flawless to win but believes with the urgency of the rivalry and the compilation of positives over the past nine games, a win here is possible.

"What we've been able to do all year when we do the right things," Jaime said. "What we need to do, we need to be perfect. You can't hype it up as something that's different. We had 11 on the field at any given point. That's all we need. We have to execute."

Palermo said the defense wasn't at its best against Springfield, coming off a narrow 24-21 loss to Norwich the week before, but this time will be different — "I guarantee we'll be dialed up. I'll make sure these guys are focused," he said.

"If the defense can just slow them down a little bit, against the best quarterback we face all year," Coast Guard coach C.C. Grant said. "And offensively, our Kryptonite has been once we get inside the 20-yard-line, we go from Superman to Clark Kent. You can't have that. If we can get these things cleaned up this week, we have a chance to be there at the end of the game."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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