It's not out of the ordinary to attend a weekend-long basketball tournament in the state of Indiana. It's not out of the ordinary to find a large athletic event happening on the University of Notre Dame campus. It's not out of the ordinary for ROTC Battalions to compete against each other for a small trophy and a year of bragging rights.
But the Flyin' Irish Basketball Tournament is anything but ordinary.
In its 34th year, the tournament took place at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana from 7-9 February, 2020. It's the largest Cadet-run multi-service ROTC event across the nation. Hosted by the Notre Dame Air Force ROTC, Detachment 225, the tournament included Air Force, Navy and Army ROTC teams from schools as near as Loyola University-Chicago and as distant as Texas A&M University.
While Army ROTC regularly brings Cadets together to compete in events like ranger challenges, field training exercises, labs and physical training --not many opportunities arise for friendly competitions between Battalions, let alone detachments from other military services.
"There aren't a lot of tri-military events where you aren't solely practicing military skills. This event is a great way to build camaraderie through sport," said Notre Dame Air Force Cadet Jake Leporte.
The energy in the Edmund P. Joyce Center was electric. On Friday and Saturday, up to six games were being played simultaneously throughout the arena, and crowds of ROTC Cadets filled the bleachers to scout other teams and cheer on friends.
All the while, Col. Corey Ramsby, Professor of Aerospace Studies and Commander of Detachment 225, quietly watched each game from the sidelines. He had competed in the Flying Irish Basketball Tournament back in 1995 while an Air Force Cadet at Purdue University, noting that this event brought back strong memories from his time in ROTC, "I can't help but think about my experience here. I can't remember if we won or lost, but it was all about the friendships we made," said Col. Ramsby.
He mused throughout the weekend about how his Air Force Cadets running the show were doing a great job under a lot of pressure. He actively chose to give the Cadets complete independence over the event, offering only guidance at the very most. Every question, comment and concern was brought to the attention of the Cadets in charge, namely Cadet Leabin Markowski, director of the Flyin' Irish Basketball Tournament.
Cadets and Cadre were eager to discuss how integral the support from the University of Notre Dame has been for the tournament's 34 years, "They gave us the keys to the Joyce Center for the weekend -- not a lot of student organizations can say the university is that supportive of their event. It's a 34-year relationship we've been building with the university," said Cadet Markowski.
University of Notre Dame ROTC Cadets from all services participated in the tournament, with their Naval ROTC team taking home the trophy for the men's bracket. While the Notre Dame Army, Air Force and Navy ROTC were able to form separate men's teams to compete, the women's team was tri-military, comprised of Cadets from all three branches of service.
The team was put together by Cadet Sophie Koeppl, an Army ROTC Cadet, who is also the captain for Saint Mary's College women's NCAA Div III basketball team.
"We don't often train with the other services, so this is the only time we get to spend time together and get to know each other," said Cadet Koeppl. The Cadets, most of whom hadn't met previously, only spent two weeks practicing for the tournament, but played and interacted with each other as though they'd been training throughout the academic year, like the Ohio State or Texas A&M ROTC teams.
The team was up 34-2 in a pool game against Iowa State Air Force, and the "mercy rule" fell into effect in the second half of the game. Instead of spending their extra time between games resting, both teams decided to trade a few players and keep playing for the allotted game time.
"One of the Iowa State Air Force freshmen said she'd jump over and play on our team. Then they started switching more players, and now it's just pure fun," Lieutenant Colonel Trey Lachicotte, Notre Dame Army ROTC Professor of Military Science, watched his Cadets with pride as they ran across the court with laughter and smiles, "It's bigger than the sport. This event, and this game, is the essence of leadership."
The tri-military Notre Dame women's team ultimately lost in the semi-finals against Virginia Tech's Corps of Cadets, but that pool game against Iowa had a lasting effect on the tournament and Cadets.
"It brings a different group of people together, which is cool. Also, it's not as intense as a ranger challenge, so we like the friendly nature of it," said Cadet Lindsay Walter, and MS-3 at Marquette University.
"We love basketball. With a team of people who are athletes and very competitive, it's fun to have a way to bond besides just the corps," said Cadet Megan Dennis, an MS-4 at Virginia Tech. Cadet Dennis serves at the Virginia Tech Army ROTC Battalion Commander and has competed in the tournament throughout her college career. The weekend culminated in the Virginia Tech women's team taking home the championship this year, "We were runners-up two years in a row. Our team has been practicing three days a week at 5 a.m. for the past three weeks leading up to this -- I'm so excited we finally won."
Virginia Tech's team even brought their own cheering section. Among them was Army Colonel Jeff Spear, father of Army ROTC Cadet Catherine Spear, MS-1, "This event is a great way to build camaraderie among schools and meet the people you may serve with in a few years. It's a competition right now, today, but they'll serve together on the same team in the near future."
Col. Ramsby echoed this sentiment, reflecting on a quote from General Douglas MacArthur, "Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields, will bear the fruits of victory."
With a watchful eye over the future military officers on the court and behind the scenes, Col. Ramsby knows that the future of the armed forces and the nation is in good hands, "You can see it on the court when a Cadet takes charge. One day, they are going to be somewhere -- maybe outside of the States -- needing to make a high-stakes decision. They're learning how to be leaders in the face of big decisions right now, on the friendly fields of strife."