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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

March Will Come Before the Madness

March 14, 2004|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

Intellectually, they realize these are the best days of their lives. The only senior on the team, point guard Toby McIntire, reminds her teammates of that all the time, that they dreamed as little girls of being a part of March Madness, of having a good team on a roll and trying to reach their Final Four.

"I've told everybody more than once," she says, " 'We need to enjoy these times right now while we have them, and make every day a blast.' "

And then, as usually happens, the heart overrules the head, especially when there's no game or no practice and there's too much time to think about the end of the season, the end of the year, especially Toby's departure after graduation in May. By then, whether the McDaniel College women's basketball team from Westminster, Md., has won the NCAA Division III championship, Toby McIntire will have put away her basketball career and packed for her career in the Army as an engineer. She'll have four months of training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri then head off to Fort Bragg. After that? McIntire knows, says out loud, that being shipped to Iraq is a very real possibility.

This is the part of the story where her teammates, though aware McIntire wants just such a scenario, start to fret. Earlier this week, she said of going to Fort Bragg in the summer, "Yes, because it has one of the highest rates of deployment."

It's a startling sentence to hear, that a young woman, 21 and about to be a college graduate, is playing college basketball today but will be off to God knows where tomorrow. Highest rate of deployment means in months McIntire could be off to serve in Iraq. Right now, one of her best friends, a former McDaniel teammate named Camey Bryant, is spending two weeks visiting her friends and family in this region because shortly she's off to serve in Afghanistan.

You think this puts a little different spin on what the McDaniel women think of March Madness as they packed up the bus and drove to Arlington, Va., for Friday night's NCAA tournament round-of-16 game at Marymount? McIntire's friend and teammate, Kelly Cramp, said the other day, "She's wanted to do this. It's in her blood. Her dad was in the Marines (Col. James L. McIntire). But still, it's a big blow to our hearts. There's a lot of crying, obviously. I think there are times when Toby's scared, but she's strong."

Even the team's coach, Becky Martin, said, "Toby's more mentally prepared for her future and the responsibilities she's taking on than we are. For the lay individual, the emotion of this is very different. She's not old enough to remember this, but I am old enough to remember seeing on TV every night the death count of American soldiers in Vietnam. It's in the back of my mind, but not hers. But we are extended family, and this season has been quite an emotional roller coaster."

McIntire grew up around Annapolis, Md., and found herself drawn to most of the elements of a life of service. She could have gone to Navy or Army, but decided she wanted to have a more normal life and fell in love with McDaniel, a small liberal arts college. Like her dad, she enrolled in ROTC. She spent the last two summers in airborne school at Fort Benning, Ga., and in a leadership camp at Fort Lewis, Wash. At the latter, she ranked 230 out of 5,000 cadets, men and women. "I know where I'm going," she said. "I've already been away and lonely, spent nights in the field with nothing but my thoughts."

I asked what she is able to transfer from a life or order and discipline to the court, and she said, "It does transfer, the composure and attention to detail. My job is to calm people down. And obviously, in a year and a half that won't be on a court; it could be in some very, very serious situations. I definitely believe in the notion that when in charge, take charge.

"From the training I've already had, I've learned what fatigue really is. At airborne school, we were up at 3:30 a.m. and ran five miles. You reach muscle failure virtually every morning; they force you to. It's horribly uncomfortable ... you're dehydrated and your blood isn't circulating. You think you're hungry and tired and they force you beyond that. So now what I experience in the final minutes of a basketball games is that while I at first might think I'm tired, I know there's so much left in me."

Martin said of McIntire, "She doesn't ask how high the bar is, she says, 'Go ahead and move it up. Let's go.' She's like the Pied Piper; her teammates would follow her anywhere."

And largely because they have such a teammate leading them, McDaniel is 25-3, the school's best record in its women's basketball history that dates from 1922-23, when they were playing in skirts.

"I can't ever recall in my 24 years as a coach," Martin said, "the unity, the bonding and closeness we have with this team. No one is entitled, but it's Toby's time."

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