ANNAPOLIS, Md. – There once was a time when Navy would have been delighted with a 9-4 season that ended with a bowl game and included wins over Notre Dame and Army.
Under the current standards, however, that just wasn't good enough.
A hard-to-swallow 14-6 loss to Air Force forced the Midshipmen to yield their seven-year stronghold on the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy, a coveted prize that represents superiority among the service academies.
"I hate losing in pickup basketball. This is way more significant than that," coach Ken Niumatalolo said at the beginning of preseason practice. "Nobody here can describe the pain of losing that game last year."
Memories of last season have provided the Midshipmen all the incentive they need in 2011.
"The game we lost last year was one of the toughest losses I have ever had to experience," said senior fullback Alexander Teich, one of Navy's two co-captains. "From the standpoint of the brotherhood, we failed them. This year it will fuel the fire."
Niumatalolo described it more directly.
"That was like someone ripping your heart out. But you have to put it back in and start breathing again," he said.
The Midshipmen return 29 of the 34 players listed on the final 2010 offensive depth chart, including eight starters. But Navy lost double-threat quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who ran for 967 yards, scored 14 touchdowns and threw for 13 scores as a senior.
He will be replaced by senior Kriss Proctor, who will be directing the run-oriented, triple-option attack that last year ranked sixth in the nation in yards rushing.
It isn't fancy, but Niumatalolo's grind-it-out offense — inherited from his predecessor, Paul Johnson — has turned around the program. Navy is 70-33 over the last eight years after going 3-30 from 2000-02.
The success of the option depends on the quarterback, and Proctor is ready to do his part.
"I'm looking forward to taking over and leading this team," he said. "I think I'm ready, prepared and have the experience and potential to follow in the footsteps of all the QBs that have preceded me. And I have a lot of confidence in the guys around me."
That's because most of the players in the huddle are familiar faces. Offensive linemen Josh Cabral, Brady DeMell, John Dowd and Ryan Basford were all starters last season, along with Teich and slot backs Gee Gee Greene and Aaron Santiago.
Greene, a junior, was the team's third-leading rusher in 2010 and averages 6.6 yards per carry for his career.
"Gee Gee, it feels like he's been here five years already," Niumatalolo said. "In the offensive line, we have guys who have played games for us. From experience standpoint, these are guys we feel good about. And I'm so excited about Kriss. I look for a phenomenal breakout year for him. I think he'll do a great job."
The defense is headed by end Jabaree Tuani, the other co-captain. Tuani is a 6-foot-1, 265-pound senior whose 10½ career sacks ranks fifth on Navy's career chart.
"He could become the best defensive lineman this school has ever had," Niumatalolo declared.
Tuani intends to finish up his career at Navy on a high note, which means beating Air Force at home on Oct. 1 is an absolute must.
"A winning season and bowl game are always goals for us, but we have the extra incentive this year of needing to take back the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy," he said. "That's going to motivate us a lot."