Why Does The Army Care So Much About Women's Lacrosse?

"On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days, on other fields will bear the fruits of victory." -- Gen. Douglas MacArthur

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Lindsay Danilack finished leading 1,063 fellow soldiers in the West Point Class of 2014 in an elaborate parade designed to pass the mantle of leadership to the next senior class.

She directed the entire graduating class to move forward and present arms, and each of the juniors marched by and saluted her before the gray stone of the historic campus.

A few minutes later, Danilack's 9-year-old cousin, Sarah Minemier, in a pink T-shirt and glasses, slowly approached.

Danilack was wearing the traditional grey jacket on an unusually hot day in spring, with white pants, a great, black-plumed hat and burgundy sash. But Minemier's eyes went to the weapon at Danilack's side.

"That looked like a lot of work," Minemier said as her cousin took the cue and unsheathed her sword.

"It was a lot of practice," Danilack said, carefully handing the blade to her.

Army West Point Athletic Communications

Lindsay Danilack on graduation day last spring.

They posed for a photo, as Minimier held her sword straight up and true.

Danilack is just the fourth woman ever to be honored as First Captain. She's so uniquely impressive that it's surprising to hear her Army track coach, Troy Engle, say that when she arrived as a freshman, Danilack seemed like just another average plebe. Given the entrance requirements for the school, which require a letter of recommendation from a member of Congress, "average" might mean something different.

But Engle didn't tag her as a First Captain right away.

"I think being on a team, especially here at West Point, really, really teaches you how to become an even better leader than if you were not on a team," Danilack said. "Being a member of a team is what we're working for when we commission and become officers and elite soldiers. You get to start to learn those traits, and it's an important way to interact with others."

Army West Point Athletic Communications

Danilack, with President Barack Obama

The Army believes there is a crucial relationship between those two things -- an athletic background and being a soldier. As the military prepares to allow women on the front lines of combat in 2016, there is an immediate need for strong, tough women from within the Army's ranks. And, in a philosophy often mentioned on campus and believed by MacArthur himself, the Army believes athletes make better soldiers.

That philosophy doesn't apply just to the best Division 1 athletes, either. West Point officials explicitly state that even successful prep athletes who aren't quite good enough to play at the NCAA level still have a head start. That's a big reason why a core tenet of attending West Point is participating in a sport -- every cadet must play either a Division I or club sport.

"Any candidate that has an athletic background is going to find West Point more conducive to who they are," said admissions director Deborah McDonald, a 1985 Army graduate.

Now the trick becomes: Where will the next wave of Lindsay Danilacks come from?

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The intuitive connection between victory in sports and victory on the battlefield made heroes of the men who played Army football in the middle of the 20th century and has served as a backdrop for many a Hollywood movie.

But what was once seen as the work of men in football helmets has undergone a radical recent change inside the gates of West Point. The Army needs a pipeline of Danilacks to staff the front lines -- and that deadline is now less than a year away.

Officials at West Point are not passively hoping for more soldiers to emerge from the gyms and playing fields of the country. They're actively amping up recruiting efforts in existing sports and are knee-deep in the creation of a new Division 1 team for next spring  -- Army's women's lacrosse team will be elevated from club status to full varsity level for the 2016-17 season. The club team just wrapped up its season, going 8-3.

Courtesy of Army West Point Athletics Communications

Kristen Waagbo, a former assistant at Navy who played at Duke, has recruited 22 women who will play on that inaugural team.

"I think women's lacrosse, you could argue it's the fastest sport on two feet," Waagbo said. "It's a tough, physical game, and our girls are physically battered every game. And it's a strategic game. ... I can't think of a better sport and a better experience than being a women's lacrosse player at Army to better prepare you for the challenges you may face as an officer."

West Point superintendent Robert Caslen, who took over the head job in July 2013, has set a goal of 20 percent female enrollment, which is about what the Naval Academy now has. The Marine Corps, as documented in a recent "60 Minutes" segment, has similar ambitions about boosting women's enrollment.

West Point's Class of 2017 has 167 women and 927 men, and all of them have their entire education paid for. To reach Caslen's goal, West Point needs more qualified women to apply and enroll.

"Adding another varsity sport, it dovetails with that initiative as well -- it complements it," says McDonald.

Courtesy of Army West Point Athletics

Midfielder Taylor England, a freshman, played on the Army women's club lacrosse team under coach Kristen Waagbo. Next year, Army goes Division 1 as a member of the Patriot League.

But for the immediate future, that 2016 deadline is looming at this point -- Army insiders say current varsity athletes possess exactly the type of skill set needed to win those new jobs available on the front lines. They describe that view in general terms, that the toughness, tenacity and physical skills of athletes make for better soldiers. 

And it's not just a flimsy theory held only at West Point, either. Studies show student-athletes tend to be better prepared to enter the "real world," and Ernst & Young research has consistently found that most women executives had a background in sports. More specifically, the E&Y research showed a connection between athletics and leadership.

The data seems to support the basic premise held at West Point: that female athletes possess critical tools that would make them ready for the front lines of combat. Lacrosse is the next frontier for pulling good athletes to the academy, with the other 10 Black Knights women's programs serving as good examples for what the Army hopes for.

Take Erin Anthony, for example. She is an engineering officer on the way toward a master's in engineering management in August, a career arc that was launched at the United States Military Academy. She has trained by flinging herself out of the doors of small planes and running for miles in full gear and backpacks.

But a key component of that training just might have been playing Division I basketball for Army.

"I think that playing sports builds a lot of confidence in your abilities," said the 2011 winner of the Academy's Army Athletic Association Award, essentially the women's MVP award for the year. "When you talk about the physical aspect of playing a Division I sport, to come to the Army and complete the tasks in front of you, there's definitely a correlation."

So it makes sense that athletes would also possess all of the skills necessary to be great soldiers. But now a tougher question: Can the Army convince more Division 1-caliber female athletes to come to West Point?

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On a Tuesday last spring, Army volleyball coach Alma Kovaci was neatly dressed and ready to recruit. On this particular trip, she planned to drive to Manhattan to hear a potential volleyball recruit play the tuba for an ensemble at Carnegie Hall.

Kovaci came to the U.S. from Albania on a volleyball scholarship and was hired as an assistant coach in 2003. She is immediately likable, with an easy smile and affinity for people.

But even with those recruiting assets, Kovaci admits that she has a unique challenge. She has to walk into gyms across the country to ask 15- to 18-year-old volleyball players, many of them wearing spandex shorts and team-colored ribbons in their hair, if they want to join the Army.

Waagbo, Kovaci and other women's coaches all give similar versions of the same list of FAQs from recruits' parents.

At the top of the list: Is my daughter going to go to war?

"You can't say no," Kovaci said. "You have to say, 'Yes, there are chances that your daughter will go there. When she joins her unit, she will deploy, and wherever the war is, that's where your daughter will be.'"

Then parents usually ask something along the lines of, My daughter wants to enjoy her college experience, and Army sounds difficult.

Just like with the first question, coaches say it's crucial to just be honest. "I have this firefighter example," Kovaci said. "A normal person that goes into a burning house is not going to feel prepared. But if you're a firefighter and you see a fire, you're going to go for it. What West Point does is the preparation."

By the end of many recruiting meetings, Army coaches often hear, Wow, you guys are really normal.

Army West Point Athletic Communications

Erin Anthony ended her Army basketball career as one of the best Black Knights players ever.

Anthony, the former center, is a good case study for how Army's bigger-picture recruiting strategy can work in the future with the startup lacrosse program. She was a fringe Division I women's basketball prospect, but Army presented an opportunity to keep playing at the highest level while also receiving a quality education without accruing any college debt.

Without that full scholarship, she says she never would have considered West Point. "I probably wouldn't have visited," said Anthony, now stationed at Fort Leonard Wood as a junior captain in the Army.

Once she got to West Point, she was hooked. Anthony went on to become an all-time great at Army, where she's still the school's fifth-leading scorer and her name is sprinkled all over the Black Knights media guide. She now says with pride that she wants to be a 20-year member of the Army.

That is exactly the Army experience West Point athletic director Boo Corrigan is pushing. "We're the foremost leadership institution in the world," Corrigan said. "We believe the Division I athletic experience is the best leadership laboratory that we have."

And within that laboratory, women's lacrosse is considered a pivotal addition to Army sports, with roughly 40 more elite Division 1 athletes coming to West Point. On campus, the men's program is a huge source of athletic pride, with eight national titles in the 90 years of the program. Corrigan says the school chose to add women's lacrosse because a $16 million men's lacrosse facility was already under construction; that facility will now house both programs.

Army is hoping women's lacrosse can provide similar results to what the Naval Academy has seen. Navy was the first branch to add Division I women's lacrosse seven years ago, bringing in legendary former Maryland and Northwestern coach Cindy Timchal to start the program. The team finished 11th in the country in 2014, and 33rd this year with a 15-5 record.

"For all the women in team sports, they're all very physical," Timchal said. "It's highly competitive -- the women are faster, fitter, stronger. Women's lacrosse at the D-I level is attracting some of the best athletes in the country."

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Danilack is a realist. She doesn't sugarcoat how difficult it is to attend West Point. But she believes her selection as First Captain sent a message, and not just for her fellow Division 1-athlete stars. A large chunk of the women in the crowd that day last spring were prep-sports standouts who would play on club teams at West Point. Those women will serve on the combat front lines, too.

"It's mostly for the underclassmen," Danilack said, "to be able to show them that women can prove themselves and do just as well in a leadership role. It's a little bit more difficult. How do I put this? For males, there's more of them, but for females it's just awesome to be able to show them you can do anything you set your mind to. If you want to be First Captain, go for it."

Danilack's overall impact probably won't be known for years. But she's the female prototype for what the future of the U.S. military's front lines will look like someday, even if she doesn't end up there herself. And on that spring day last year, there was anecdotal evidence everywhere that her achievements mattered.

Pam Runyons was in the stands at Michie Stadium to see her daughter, Camille, graduate under Danilack's direction. She was moved as President Barack Obama, in the commencement address, discussed the weight of knowing that four students from the 2009 class gave their lives in the troop surge in Afghanistan that followed their graduation.

Pam reflected that day on the previous four years and how far her daughter had come. She had thought Camille, her baby, would go to college closer to their Raleigh, North Carolina, home. Camille had been a tennis player in high school and decided the night before the application deadline to apply to West Point, from where older siblings Bob and Abigail had graduated. Though she was not a Division 1 recruit, Camille's athleticism -- not to mention family lineage -- made her a perfect fit.

On graduation day, the Runyons couldn't help but recall Camille's first two minutes at West Point. Her folks brought her to campus and took her to the appointed drop-off area, where a soldier informed the family they had 90 seconds to say goodbye to Camille.

Camille, the gritty high school tennis star, reached up and took off her pearl earrings one at a time and placed them into her mother's hand.

"Here, Mom," she said. "I won't be needing these."

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