Army Strong: UND Army ROTC team excels at Ranger Challenge

 UND Army ROTC team earns most individual wins at recent Task Force Ripley Ranger Challenge

UND’s Army ROTC team recently competed at the Task Force Ripley Ranger Challenge, where it won the most individual events – or streamers – than any other university team in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. From the left: Kellen Jansen, Matthew Davalos, Cole Marshall, Master Sgt. Figueroa, Hunter Brown, Eric Lundstrom, Isaac Watson, Cassidy Huesers. Not pictured are Tanner Aho, Colten Demant, Taylor Sagen and Tristan Carlson. Photo courtesy of Tanner Aho.

When the team of nine reached the base of a hill and looked up, taking in the steep slope they’d have to climb, they had a mental – as well as a physical – barrier to overcome.

It was Oct. 19, and the University of North Dakota Army Reserve Officer Training Corps team had trained intensively for this event, which was part the Task Force Ripley Ranger Challenge. But they had prepared in Grand Forks, where the terrain is flat. The completion took place at West Camp Rapid in Rapid City, S.D, which nestles on the eastern slopes of the Black Hills.

“We knew that we were going to kind of be at a disadvantage there,” said Tanner Aho, a UND senior and the team’s co-captain. “But we did what we had to do to overcome it. That shows how well a team operates together, and our team did really well. We changed equipment to make it easy on people if they were really struggling.”

Although the UND Army ROTC team ranked second, overall, among eight universities in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, it secured the most streamers – individual event wins – than anyone else. Three, to be exact.

“I believe the rest of the schools, the most any of them got was one streamer, and we got three,” said Master Sgt. Edwinli Figueroa, who coached the team together with Sgt. 1st Class Rodney Nelson.

To dominate the regional installment of the Ranger Challenge, which is the varsity sport of ROTC units, is a big deal, a victory that reflects the physical, mental and intellectual strength of any university ROTC program. That’s because the Ranger Challenge is designed to mirror the grueling training that active-duty service men and women go though.

For UND Army ROTC, the three wins – marked with three separate pennants, or streamers, on the unit’s guidon – attest to the team’s hard work leading up to the event.

Prep for great performance

Preparations for the Task Force Ripley Ranger Challenge began with the start of the Fall semester, when 36 cadets tried out to make the 9-strong team.

At first, the cadets trained with heavy weights and rucks. Strength and endurance are big parts of the Ranger Challenge, which steers contestants through various physically draining courses – from ruck marches to rope bridges.

Then came mental readiness, not only for withstanding the physicality of it all, but also for completing a tactics knowledge test and proving dexterity with weapons in a quick disassembly-and-assembly competition.

In the knowledge exam, the team secured a streamer, correctly answering 36 out of 40 questions. The second best score, Master Sgt. Figueroa said, came in at some 25 right answers.

For the weapons training, the Army ROTC contracted with the North Dakota National Guard to borrow arms. At the Ranger Challenge, the team tackled an M4 carbine and an M249 Machine Gun, which are common squad weapons.

With training sessions in the mornings – starting as early as 5 a.m. – and afternoons, the goal for the coaches and co-captains was to mimic, as best as possible, the actual Ranger Challenge to nurture the team’s strength and endurance.

“The best way to know their mental state or how strong they are is by judging their physical fitness,” said MSG Figueroa. “So, can you do it when you are tired, can you do it repeatedly over and over? That’s how you know who will be good at the [actual] competition.”

The team assembled for a call of fire brief. Photo courtesy of Tanner Aho.

A strong team

Along with nine separate challenges (a ruck march, a medical evacuation, a one-rope bridge setup and crawl, among others), there was a mystery event, which, by its nature, is hard to get ready for. This time, it was a tire-flip matchup on a 200-meter track, traversed forward and then back. The tires weighed 500 pounds.

“We looked at it strategically, and we split into two teams,” said Tanner Aho. “You flip once and then you go off to the side and let to other fresh people come in so they are able to flip it. So we kind of kept it going that way.”

The UND Army ROTC crew kept it going so well that they earned a streamer.

The marksmanship challenge delivered yet another top placement.

Despite the UND Army ROTC team’s stellar performance, logistics and strategy for the next tier of the Ranger Challenge delivered the overall win to St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

Nevertheless, Master Sgt. Figueroa said, “I believe this is probably the strongest finish that we’ve seen in many years here at UND.”

It is a team carried, to an extent, by the leadership and passion of its co-captains, Aho and UND junior Cole Marshall, who worked with the coaches to secure weapons for training, schedule training sessions and maintain morale and teamwork.

“The years prior, I was just someone who followed the orders of people higher than me. But this year was actually a major challenge, which made it a little more fun,” said Marshall of the responsibilities he had as a co-captain. “And also, it was about pushing myself to see where my limits were.”

Having participated in the Ranger Challenge for four years, Aho is graduating with a degree in criminal justice in May and commissioning as a second lieutenant. He is also in the top 10 percent of high-achieving ROTC cadets across the nation, said Figueroa.

Marshall has one more year at UND before he earns his diploma in criminal justice. In that time span, he wants to attract more cadets to the Ranger Challenge as well as several other yearly competitions.