- J.D. Salinger
WEST POINT, N.Y. - It was the end of my high school soccer practice one day last fall when one of my players asked to talk to me after practice. If you've been around enough, you start to understand that "Can I talk to you?" usually has a negative connotation.
In this case, it wasn't a horrible situation, she was upset that in our recent shutout victory, several other defenders had their names mentioned in the local newspaper, while hers wasn't.
"I just want to be recognized for what I do. That's all."
"Recognized by whom? I know you did a great job. You know you did a great job. She (I looked at my assistant coach) knows."
"As long as the people close to you recognize, who gives a crap about anyone else. Even if they don't, you know how hard you work. And that should give you a lot of satisfaction."
A record of 15-13 doesn't send shockwaves through the college basketball world. In fact, it really doesn't send any waves, to be honest.
Therefore, what Army has been able to accomplish in the last couple of months has been little noted, and with 347 Division I teams running around, it's somewhat understandable.
Army basketball has not had a winning record since 1984-85. That's 28 seasons in a row below .500, a remarkable streak of futility, even for the United States Military Academy, a nearly impossible place to recruit.
Current coach Zach Spiker could barely reach a 10-foot basket the last time Army had more wins than losses (he was nine). He got off to a flying start after taking over for Jim Crews (wonder what happened to him?) just days before the 2009-10 season, but slowly faded away, finishing 14-15. The last two years have seen the record regress again.
This season, Spiker decided to put himself out on the proverbial limb and do something maybe not unique, but certainly different, especially at Army. With a massive freshman class whom we all thought could play, Spiker - now in his fourth season - uses massive amounts of players and substitutions, sometimes going 13 deep, even in close games. His best player, senior Ella Ellis, averages just 28 minutes per game.
After a decent start, Army lost five of six, including three of its first four Patriot League games, the last two to Colgate and (gasp) Navy, the two teams picked for the bottom of the league. At 8-11, getting above .500 would have to wait for Spiker's fifth season.
But the Black Knights beat American and won at Holy Cross, before dropping back-to-back close games against Patriot powers Lehigh
And they haven't lost since.
Wednesday's not-so-easy victory over Holy Cross Wednesday was Army's fifth straight, and moved them to 8-5 in the league, clinching its first winning conference record since 1986-87 in the MAAC. Army can finish as high as second in the Patriot if it can win at Lehigh Saturday, a feat that would have been unthinkable before the season, and is probably still unlikely, but a lot less so than it was two months ago.
If you've followed along the last couple of seasons, you probably know my affinity for Army, which comes off as a little strange to me. I never thought about joining the military, don't have many family involved, and almost certainly never would have been able to cut it at West Point.
But maybe that's why. It was Senior Night, always a joyous occasion, but I watched the parents of the three Army seniors walk with their sons (Jason Pancoe, Jordan Springer, and Ellis were the three seniors - Pancoe has been out long-term with concussion issues, but serves as an unofficial assistant coach and dressed for this game) and thought of the pride and accomplishment they must feel for reasons that go well beyond basketball. Making it through four years of West Point will do that.
There were no cadets at Christl Arena in my last visit because of studying, but they were out in force this time, lured somewhat by the promise of free pizza and soda. (I thought my joke of a "camouflage out" was actually decent after seeing black, red, and white outs in various places in the last couple of weeks.) It took a while for them to get into the game, which is understandable at a place where you're normally not encouraged to scream wildly for no reason and rest time is rare.
The PA announcer stated before the national anthem, "Please remain standing until the colors have left the playing floor. Thank you."
Yet as the final note of "brave" came down, several Holy Cross players started clapping their hands and moved toward their bench out of pure habit. They got death stares from their coaches and the crowd at large and quickly raced back to where they were. A minute later, under dead silence, the colors left the floor and the cadets cheered. The Holy Cross players waited an extra second before going back to the bench.
Being Senior Night and the final home game of the regular season (Army will host a Patriot League quarterfinal next Wednesday, another rare accomplishment), West Point allowed the cadets some leeway. At one of the media time outs, the company that had the most students in attendance got to smash a pie in their commander's face. A senior officer ran down to lead the cheers with the students as everyone roared.
There was a slight problem, though, that was quickly becoming larger. Army couldn't put the ball in the basket.
It was instinctive, really. At most of the games I go to, I'm a strictly neutral observer, cheering slightly more for the home team, but really not caring who prevails as long as I have a good time and see a competitive game.
But as Army got colder and colder and the visitors opened up a 22-14 lead approaching the latter stages of the first half, I became edgy, the way I do when I team I root for struggles. When Ellis scored five straight points to drag the Black Knights back into it, my hands came together without me even trying and a spontaneous whistle came out of my mouth. Another Ellis superhoop gave Army a 30-28 lead at the half and I stood with the rest of the crowd and cadets to cheer them into the locker room.
(My biggest accomplishment in the trip up to West Point - other than the scenery - was stopping at the grocery store I did a couple of months ago in Highland Falls (West Point is technically just the campus, the adjoining town where most of the civilians that work there live is Highland Falls). Then, I tried to order a sandwich at the deli and was told I had to go across the store and get my own bread before ordering. This time, the woman started to tell me about the bread, but I raised my right hand that already had the hard roll in it. See, little accomplishments.)
There were fouls upon fouls in the second half as the referees called the game tighter. When a touch foul was called on Holy Cross, diminutive point guard Justin Burrell screamed an audible, high-pitched, "What?" for everyone in Christl to hear. The referees let him get away with a talking-to, but the cadets - now fully engaged, weren't that lenient, which led to the bizarre scene of them giving their best falsetto "What?" every time Burrell touched the ball the rest of the way.
It was an interesting juxtaposition at the end of the team's respective benches as well. Holy Cross had a priest, while Army countered with a senior officer. Tough call there, no?
As the Crusaders, in the midst of a dreadful spell after a promising start, hung around and were within a single point with 7:30 left, I felt that nervousness and anxiousness that has been conspicuously absent this winter.
But Ellis - in his final home game - took care of that. Like his team, Ellis' career accomplishments are not well known, unless you follow the Patriot League, but will soon move into fifth on Army's all-time scoring list. Not particularly known for his shooting, Holy Cross made the mistake of giving him too much space in the second half, and every time his team needed a basket, they went to Ellis.
In the end, the First Class (Army's code for seniors) player scored 31 points, including a perfect 13-for-13 from the free throw line as the Black Knights won again. The happy cadets filed out, back to the grind for a few more months.
I hung around for a few minutes after as the seniors came back out to the empty arena to take pictures with family and friends. It wasn't a short trip for any of them: Pancoe is from California, Springer from Charlotte, Ellis from Houston.
Ellis signed a couple of autographs for youngsters still hanging around and posed with his mom and Spiker before finally leaving, surely with work to do of his own before he graduates.
I joked at one point during the game that Ellis was "flying below the radar", which was ironic because his branch assignment will be in Air Defense Artillery (Pancoe will be with Military Intelligence, Springer with the Engineer Corps if you were wondering).
Somewhere in the near future, Ellis may be called upon to use that expertise, although we all probably hope he'd rather not. Surely, he'll do his job superbly and maybe save a few lives in the process.
Even if that happens, it likely won't make the local news, and even if it did, the name Ella Ellis will never be mentioned for his accomplishments.
But the people around him will recognize what he did. And that will be plenty.