Leading Factor

The following article appeared on ESPN.com on Nov. 25, 2009, and was written by Dave Reed.

The United States Military Academy at West Point has a rich history of producing great leaders.

The Long Gray Line includes famous leaders such as former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. George S. Patton and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, as well as Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis.

While the names may not be as well known, the volleyball program has produced its share of leaders.

Col. Cindy Jebb earned the distinction of being the first female graduate to return as a professor, in 2005; Deann Machlan is the only volleyball player to enter the Army Sports Hall of Fame; and Elizabeth Lazzari became the first volleyball player to receive the Army Athletic Association Trophy, the athletic department's highest honor for a graduating cadet, in May.

On Saturday, setter and first class cadet Maureen Bannon solidified her place among the list of outstanding leaders currently attending West Point. Not only did she guide Army to its first Patriot League championship since 1994, the Black Knights earned the program's first NCAA tournament appearance with a convincing 25-16, 25-16, 28-26 victory over eight-time defending Patriot League champion American University.

"Not many people expected us to be this good, but we proved everyone wrong," said Bannon, the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "It's something I will never forget, especially since American had won every tournament since they have been in the Patriot League. It was nice taking away the championship on our home court."

Bannon had 41 assists while leading the Black Knights to .328 hitting percentage against an opponent with an average height of 6-foot-4 across its front row. But overcoming tall obstacles is nothing new for a team with an average height of just under 5-foot-11.

When the season started, it had all the makings of a rebuilding year. Army had to replace four all-league selections from a 2008 squad that completed the season with a 26-4 overall record and finished in a tie with American atop the Patriot League standings with a 13-1 mark.

Knowing the team's success would depend on integrating some very talented first-year players into the team, Bannon worked hard to make sure she developed chemistry with her new teammates on the court and was a mentor for the plebes off the court.

Her efforts obviously paid off.

Freshman outside hitter Ariana Mankus became the first player in Patriot League history to be named Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year in the same season, while freshman right-side hitter Francine Vasquez was named to the All-Patriot League second team.

Bannon was named Setter of the Year for the third time, while Alma Kovaci earned Coach of the Year honors.

"She really connected with the freshmen, on and off the court," Kovaci said of Bannon. "She talked to them about where they wanted the ball, and how she could help them be successful. She is one of the biggest reasons why we won the championship. The way she runs the offense is very fast and very precise."

The first indication that the Black Knights were going to have a special season occurred on Sept. 12, when Army defeated then-No. 19 Pepperdine in five sets for the program's first victory over a nationally ranked opponent.

"That was when they believed there was something awesome going on," Kovaci said. "It was hard for us during the preconference schedule with a new team -- at West Point, where there is so much going on with your life, especially for the freshman because they have to do their basic training."

Army won nine of 12 preconference matches, including victories over Iowa and Binghamton, champion of the America East Conference. The Black Knights won their first 10 Patriot League matches before Bannon was sidelined with an ankle injury.

Playing without its leader, Army suffered back-to-back losses at Navy and American and was losing its grip on first place. But Bannon returned for the final two matches of the regular season, and the Knights rebounded with victories against Lafayette and Lehigh to wrap up the regular-season title and earn the right to host the league's four-team tournament.

Army must wait until Sunday's Selection Show (3 p.m., ESPNEWS) to learn of its tournament destination. With the emphasis on limiting travel for the first and second rounds, it's possible the Black Knights could face No. 1 Penn State in their opening match.

"We're happy to make it to the NCAA tournament and we'll take it one match at a time," said Bannon. "Whoever we draw, we'll be happy. I'd love to play Penn State and I'll be happy if we draw someone else. Each match is a learning experience."

That's exactly the attitude a coach expects from a senior setter and the United States Military Academy expects from its graduates.

"Maureen is a hard worker who sets a great example with her passion and dedication," Kovaci said. "She's got a contagious smile and a jump serve that is absolutely awesome. The players feed off that energy.

"She's going to make a great officer. She's going to make a great leader."

Knight Vision


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