KINGS POINT, N.Y. – The one thing that U.S. Merchant Marine head football coach Mike Toop has learned about his school's fierce rivalry with the Coast Guard Academy is to never underestimate the opposition.
"Right now it's the ultimate game," Toop said. "It's the biggest pride game on the schedule, period. Having played in it, I knew that for a fact. It hasn't changed at all over the years."
Kings Point vs. Coast Guard may not receive the same publicity as the Army-Navy rivalry, but intensity of the Division III competition is the same.
"It's a great game because you're playing a like institution in as far as their guys are doing the same thing as you are," Toop said. "These are unique institutions. There are not very many of them. Any time you're going against a like institution, where you their guys are going through the daily grind like our guys are, it's just a little bit more competitive rivalry."
The Mariners and Coast Guard will go at it again on Saturday in not one sport, not two, but three athletic competitions in what has become an annual tripleheader.
The soccer teams kick off the day with at Captain Tomb Field at 11 a.m., followed by a volleyball match in Liebertz Gymnasium at noon. The tripleheader will be highlighted by the football game at Tomb Field at 2:30 p.m.
At stake for the football team is a lot of pride, bragging rights and the Secretaries' Cup, which is awarded to the winner. The game will mark the 31st edition of the competition. Kings Point holds a 19-11 advantage since it began in 1981 and a 26-13 edge in the entire series, although Coast Guard won last year's encounter in New London, Conn., 10-8.
The rivalry began in 1949, when the Coast Guard won the first encounter, 21-14.
"The thing about this game, it doesn't matter who's better," Toop said. "It's going to come down to the wire usually. My first class year we were fifth in the country and I think they might have won one game and it was a two-point game. . . . Last year basically we completely outplayed them and lost."
Toop is in the unique position of having played and coached against the Bears. A member of the class of '77, Toop was a member of three victorious Mariners teams against their archrivals.
He remembered the biggest crowd at a Kings Point game in 1976. This was before a track and artificial turf was added to Tomb Field.
"The bleachers on the visitors' side extended the whole length of the field," Toop said. "They were all packed. They had to put a rope up around the field. It was five or six deep. It was packed. For me, what's memorable – I never lost to them as a player. I lost to them twice as a coach and they were both excruciating. "
Mariners soccer coach Mike Smolens, who has been at Kings Point for 22 seasons, has known what what the rivalry means.
"It has always been a big match that for the alums and former players and even family," he said. "It's always a focal point for the school. "
The Mariners, who bring a 2-1 record into the match, has not lost to their archrivals since 1999. That translates into an 11-game unbeaten streak.
"It's the kind of match that it's the focal point of the season, but it's not the season," Smolens said. "The great thing about it for both teams is that there's intensity about the match that you want in a college soccer match. So you're going to get that. It's a game we want to win for all the right reasons. It's also a match you want to be part of because it's a real, intense dogfight."
Smolens said he expected his team to feel the same intensity of the NCAA tournament in November.
"We have high goals of the NCAA tournament," he said." We view those matches as more important but also this is a match that the intensity, the will to win is all very important and it makes it exciting and great to be a part of."
Last year Kings Point recorded a 1-0 road victory. While the Mariners are 2-1 this season, Smolens wasn't counting any chickens before they were hatched against the Bears (2-0).
"We've done well against them," Smolens said. "They've had some very good teams. Last year they were a strong side and we won 1-0. I look to this year will be a battle, too. They're well coached and they have some good players. It seems that the last number of years we've kind of had their number. We played a number of really tight matches and we've always been able to come out ahead. But in no way do the players or the coaches take any game with Coast Guard for granted."
The Mariners women's volleyball team (3-0) enters the weekend on a high note after registering a 3-1 win over Lehman College on Thursday night.
"Coast Guard really brings the entire school together," said sophomore outside hitter Kelly Hodges (Lakewood, Colo.). "We're going in hoping to win. We're going to push our hardest and play with all our heart. We have the motivation of the whole school behind us. All the sports teams do. So it's really an exciting game."
At Coast Guard last year, the Mariners dropped a 3-0 away decision.
"It was a tough game," Hodges said. "It was hard to keep your head up because they outplayed us."
But this year the match – in fact, all three sports -- will be held on Kings Point turf or court – with bragging rights, pride and the Secretaries' Cup – at stake.