By Alton Dunham (USAG Fort Huachuca)February 23, 2011
FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz. - For the 2011 All-Army boxing team, this year's All-Armed Forces Boxing competition is one of the most important in recent history for more reasons than one.
Once again, the Army's undefeated streak is on the line, as it stands the Army hasn't lost for 19-years and counting.
The team is looking for a storybook ending to All-Army head coach Basheer Abdullah's career, a man who has been at the helm for 14 of those unbeaten years.
And it may be now or never for the team's veterans, as many of the All-Army's boxing team core embark on a final run toward the 2012 Olympics that will conclude their amateur boxing careers.
With their backs against the wall, the returning favorites must now navigate one of the toughest inter-service fields in recent history.
The 2011 Marine contingent boasts a full squad that includes numerous ranked boxers, and the Devil Dogs have publicly stated they have the formula to end the Army's dominant reign. They have even recruited head coach Jesse Ravello, the former Army coach who Abdullah replaced as the head of the All-Army team in 1997.
A young upstart Navy team is also looking to contend.
As General George Patton said, "pressure makes diamonds," and the Army is resolved to prove him right.
"This is it," said Staff Sgt. Andrew Shepherd, 4th Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group, Fort Carson, Colo.
"I told myself before I even got on the plane, 'Look, you don't get any more shots, whether you make it or not'."
The 30-year-old Shepherd acknowledged that he is on the cusp of the 34-year age limit for Olympic boxing, and this would be his last effort as an amateur before returning to Fort Carson to focus solely on his military career.
After almost a decade of excellence with the All-Army Boxing program, he is committed to going out on top.
"I am not going to allow myself to look back and say 'What if ... ''" Shepherd said of his last year on the team. "It would be a tragedy not to get the absolute best out of this experience that I can."
Joining him is Capt. Michael Benedosso, World Class Athlete Program, who may be focusing on law school and coaching instead of bobbing and weaving after 2012.
Top ranked Bededosso is undefeated at the All-Armed Forces competition, and is always a favorite to medal in every tournament he enters.
At 108 lbs, the West Point graduate leads the way as the first boxer to compete, and Shepherd's job is to bring it home as the super heavyweight fighter. Both athletes are steadfast that the 2011 contest will end the same way it has every year it recent memory.
"This team we have is a very good team," Shepherd said. "I think this team is more promising than even the teams we had going forward in 2003, 2004 or 2007."
This 2011 group is a mixed bag of experience fused with new talent. Almost half the team is nationally ranked by USA boxing, but in a stacked tournament, the Army must give no quarter if they are to repeat.
For example, fresh face Toribio Ramirez will look to upset the Marines' incumbent 132 lb fighter, who is currently ranked 4th in the nation.
The vets who have been to the big show plan to be there to advise Ramirez all the way to the win.
"We'll try to get our young guys to focus on what they do best, master it and carry it forward," Shepherd said.
"It's important on a big stage such as this, that they remember to just calm down. I remind them not to over think things and execute."
The pressure will be on the veterans as much, if not more, than the Army's newest additions.
Other favorites such as Franklin, Barry, Vasquez and Blackwell will have to box at their best against hungry lions anxiously looking for a chance to usurp the Army. A win at this year's All-Armed Forces competition can help qualify individual boxers for the 2012 Olympic trials.
A bad outing could prove to be the difference-maker in what looks to be a tight race.
Benedosso feels it will be Army pride that propels the team's win streak to two straight decades.
"Our biggest strength is our pride, the pride that we have in the Army, and Army boxing, along with our rich history as a powerful team," Benedosso said.
"We know we have to work hard, but if we perform at our best we will win."