When the seniors on the Navy football team arrived for plebe summer in 2012, the Midshipmen were coming off their first losing season in nine years.
Circumstances deteriorated even more when then-starting quarterback Trey Miller hurt his ankle in a 50-10 season-opening loss to Notre Dame. The Midshipmen were 1-3 by the end of September.
Trailing Air Force by eight points late in the next game, coach Ken Niumatalolo turned to quarterback Keenan Reynolds, then a freshman. Reynolds entered with 9 minutes, 3 seconds left in regulation and scored the tying touchdown before directing the decisive drive for a 28-21 overtime win.
Also contributing to the season-saving win were nose guard Bernard Sarra and defensive end Will Anthony, classmates with Reynolds who joined the record-setting Heisman Trophy candidate as the core of one of the most accomplished groups of seniors in program history. The Class of 2016 comprising 32 seniors has 35 wins, tied for the most in the modern era at Navy.
A victory over Pittsburgh in Monday's Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium would move this senior class into a tie with the Class of 1909 for most wins in school history. The No. 21 Midshipmen (10-2) also would set the single-season program record for wins.
The senior class has been as determined to deliver Niumatalolo a win on the heels of drama involving a potential coaching change in Annapolis.
The winningest coach in school history told the team 48 hours before playing Army he would be exploring the then-vacant job at Brigham Young. Niumatalolo traveled to Provo, Utah, the day after beating the Black Knights, 21-17, for a 14th straight time and last Monday spoke with BYU officials about their head coaching vacancy.
Following two days of consideration, Niumatalolo opted to remain at Navy. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk made Niumatalolo's decision more worthwhile financially by reworking his contract. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
"There's definitely people out there that might question his decision or how he handled things, but none of us care about that," Sarra said.
After 134 years as an independent, the Midshipmen joined the American Athletic Conference, in which four teams were ranked this season. Navy plays in the highly competitive West Division with No. 18 Houston and Memphis, which at its peak was ranked No. 13. The Cougars beat Navy 52-31 on Nov. 27 to secure the West Division title on the way to winning the inaugural AAC title game.
Navy, meanwhile, has been ranked in the College Football Playoff poll for five straight weeks. It's the program's longest such streak since 1963, when the Midshipmen were ranked the entire season behind Heisman-winning quarterback Roger Staubach.
"To have that opportunity now is huge for us, to leave our mark on the Naval Academy as a class," Reynolds said. "To not only have the most wins in a season but also the winningest class, I think that would be an awesome thing. When we come back 20 years from now and we're all fat and crusty, we can talk about it, joke around and laugh."