Penn State Sandhurst
Penn State squad leader Jake Ahle on Saturday receives the trophy given to the top ROTC team at Sandhurst from Maj. Gen. Jeff Smith, U.S. Army Cadet Command commanding general. Penn State finished second overall in the international competition held this weekend at West Point, N.Y. Photo by Steve Arel/U.S. Army Cadet Command

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Barely able to crack the top 10, Army ROTC teams have never posed a real threat to win the prestigious Sandhurst Competition in the 20 years they've competed.

Until now.

Cadet Command programs collectively posted their strongest finish ever in the annual international test of military skills that wrapped up Saturday, with three schools ranking in the top 10 and perhaps finally closing the gap to victory. Penn State University led the way by taking second overall, the University of North Dakota came in sixth and Brigham Young University captured seventh.

"I'm not surprised," said Lt. Col. Ken Weiland, Penn State's professor of military science.

He attributed the team's success to veteran senior Cadet leadership, solid physical fitness and intellectual talent from students with a knack for the type of critical thinking Sandhurst challenges demand.

"They develop new and improved training plans to meet the ever-changing standards," Weiland said.

Detailed Sandhurst results, including winners of each of the competition's events, won't be released until at least sometime next week. However, a team from Britain, which has long dominated the event, was named the overall winner.

Both Penn State and North Dakota competed last year. That experience proved pivotal, said Jake Ahle, Penn State's squad leader.

"We train day in and day out," he said. "To put our name in the history books means a lot. Everything pays off."

Prior to Saturday's awards ceremony, Maj. Gen. Jeff Smith spent nearly an hour with all 72 Cadets who competed and their cadre and family members who made the trip with them. In applauding the participants, Cadet Command's commanding general hailed their effort as historic.

After watching ROTC teams compete at Sandhurst shortly after he took command last year, Smith initiated changes to brigade Ranger Challenge competitions that more mirrored Sandhurst exercises.

"Not because I wanted you to win this event," Smith said. "I want you to be a better critical thinker. I want you to be more resilient and better physically. … My objective with this event and Ranger Challenges are to create an environment that enables you to excel.

"You should be proud of all you've done. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if you came in first. You'll leave here a better person and have learned a lot about yourselves and your teammates and become a better Cadet and a better officer."

After trekking roughly 10 miles in Friday's opening round that featured marksmanship and land navigation, teams faced another formidable route Saturday.

Due to budget constraints, the traditional course was changed this year, moved from a rugged remote training site and onto the West Point campus. But it was no less taxing.

"We were prepared, but it hurt," said Adam Harrison of East Tennessee State University.

Cadets on Saturday faced a multitude of challenges. Among them: an indoor obstacle course that required the nine-person teams to low-crawl, scale walls, climb ropes and carry a 180-pound dummy nearly 300 yards; assembly of several weapons while donning gas masks in a mock chemical environment; one-rope bridge construction and lugging a 140-pound Zodiak boat for nearly half a mile.

Cadets had to navigate steep inclines to reach most of the competition sites.

"This was the most demanding course I've been on," Ahle said. "I feel complete satisfaction because we gave nothing but 110 percent effort. It's a neat feeling to lead people who motivate you through it all."

Appalachian State dedicated its performance to Christopher Hasbrouck. A year ago this weekend, the sophomore Cadet suffered heat stroke while competing in the Mountain Man March in Tennessee and died 12 days later.

With the 2013 race being held Saturday, Appalachian State contemplated bowing out of Sandhurst to show its support in Tennessee. But with a contingent of ASU Cadets already planning to march, the Sandhurst squad focused its efforts on West Point, with their thoughts clearly on Hasbrouck.

Each Cadet carried a laminated card pinned to the cargo pockets of their pants that featured Hasbrouck's name, his photo and the Appalachain State, ROTC and Army logos.

"It has been our motiviation," said Harrison Fletcher, the team's squad leader.

Living in a region with similar hilly terrain to that of eastern New York proved beneficial in preparing the team. Serving the last four years as an Army National Guard Soldier while in ROTC, the intensity of the training in recent weeks was more than Harrison has experienced during his time as an enlisted service member, he said.

The toughest aspect of the Sandhurst Competition, Harrison said, was the ambiguity of operations. Even when teams thought they knew a scenario, organizers tweaked the situation to force Cadets to react quickly and adapt to complete the mission.

Win or lose, Harrison relished the experience of going up against international competition. The exposure -- and all it took to get here -- will have long-lasting, positive effects.

"I have no regrets," Harrison said. "We got good training out of it. We're competitive people by nature. We take what we get and roll on."

Page last updated Sat April 20th, 2013 at 00:00