Penn State tops all American squads at international military skills competition

May 09, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – It could have easily been interpreted as a bad omen.

Shortly after Penn State Army ROTC cadets set the sights of their M-4 rifles on their targets, a thick fog crept in during the first day of the Sandhurst Military Stakes Competition in West Point, N.Y. Rather than negatively affect their marksmanship scores with errant shots in the mist, the cadets opted to shoot fewer rounds. Their point total in that event still left them 27th out of 58 squads.

The fog could have cast a pall over the team’s entire performance; it could have been a sign that this wasn’t their year, that the third time wasn’t a charm. Instead, the fog and that disappointing score fueled a spectacular comeback as Penn State’s nine-member Penn State Army ROTC Sandhurst Team finished as the top American squad at the international competition, held April 19 and 20. 

“It provided more motivation for the team to feel the need and desire to fight back,” said senior Joshua Ciccolini, of Lewistown, Pa. “The fog was kindling for our burning desire to prove ourselves to the world.

By consistently finishing high in other challenges, which included grenade throwing for accuracy and land navigation, the team bested all other American and ROTC squads at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. Only a team from Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst tallied more points than Penn State.

“The Penn State team was noted for its professionalism, focus, excellence and skill,” said Col. Glenn Goldman, director of military instruction at West Point. “They were a pleasure to host.”

The cadets also crawled, sprinted and climbed through an indoor obstacle course, assembled weapons while wearing gas masks, constructed a rope bridge and hauled around a 322-pound inflatable boat for nearly half a mile. The Penn State team completed all the challenges in the second fastest time.

“We had the conditioning and drive to just go nonstop and that allowed us to just attack each obstacle and really run hard between obstacles to pass teams,” said sophomore Matthew Olphin, of New Freedom, Pa.

The competition’s roots trace to 1967 when Royal Military Academy Sandhurst presented West Point with a British officer’s sword that would be the prize in a competition among cadets from both academies. This year, Penn State competed against 36 teams from West Point, a squad from each of the other three U. S. Service Academies, seven other Army ROTC teams, a squad from the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School and 10 international teams, including China, Australia and Canada.

Cadets did not know the lineup of challenges in advance but did have a week at West Point to prepare. At Penn State, training involved sessions from 5:30 to 7 a.m. five days a week, an additional two hours of work on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and the occasional weekend workout. This was the third Sandhurst competition for three of the cadets.

“We shared a camaraderie that had not been experienced in our two previous Sandhurst teams,” said Ciccolini. “The chemistry that existed among the members of our team was based on friendship and forged outside of training. We spent time with each other and built a bond that would carry us to victory.”

The Penn State team advanced to the Sandhurst competition after winning the regional 2nd Freedom Brigade Ranger Challenge Competition in October at Fort Dix, N.J. Wins at the previous two years' regional competitions also earned Penn State trips to West Point, but 2013’s winning performance in the international competition would have seemed impossible in 2011 and 2012, according to coach David Rizzo.

“They became more and more professional with each year,” he said.

Overall, ROTC programs made a better showing in 2013, with three cracking the top 10 for the first time. North Dakota (No. 6) and Brigham Young (No. 7) shared the distinction with Penn State.

The other coach, Cpt. Stuart Warders, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Sandhurst competition, shared Rizzo’s enthusiasm. (Rizzo and Warders are instructors for the freshman and sophomore Penn State ROTC classes.)

“They’re some of the most in-shape kids I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said.

The coaches worked as master motivators, convincing the cadets that they had the chops to compete as well as providing some comforts of home, whipping up a pre-game meal that included 17 pounds of spaghetti cooked on a hotel room kitchenette.

The victory was all the more impressive, the coaches pointed out, because Penn State cadets were often going up against older, full-time soldiers. Members of the team are all contracted cadets working toward a ranking of 2nd lieutenant upon graduation from Penn State. Rizzo and Warders said the cadets make them confident in the future of the U.S. military’s leadership.

“They made such a sacrifice,” said Rizzo. “It’s great to see them rewarded for it.”

Rounding out the squad were senior Jake Ahle, team captain, of Voorhees, N.J.; senior Taylor Moran of Marietta, Pa.; junior Kirill Zemlyanskiy of State College, Pa.; sophomores Kate Bassett, of Sunbury, Pa.; Johnathan Graham, of South Korea; and Jacob Boyle, of Gibsonia, Pa.; and freshman Michael Scott of Phoenixville, Pa. Sophomore Andrew Fletcher, of Chantilly, Va., and freshman Matt Wolfel, of Jessup, Pa., were alternates.

  • Jake Ahle climbing a rope

    Penn State's Jake Ahle climbs a rope as part of the obstacle course challenge at the Sandhurst competition in April at West Point, N.Y. 

    IMAGE: Steve Arel/U.S. Army Cadet Command

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 13, 2013