Norwich University sends drill team to nationals

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(Host) The Norwich University hockey team isn’t alone in its hunt for a national championship. The military college’s exhibition drill squad is competing for national honors this week in New Orleans.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) It’s early evening, after classes at Norwich University. A group of cadets is chattering away in the cavernous building that houses the school’s indoor track and tennis courts. Suddenly someone barks an order.

(Drill leader) “Platoon! Attention!”

(Zind) The cadets quickly coalesce into a tight formation. They stand at attention, with rifles at their sides, facing the drill team sergeant, who holds a thin shining sword, it’s tip pointed skyward.

(Cadets, in unison) “Sir!!!”
(Leader) “Norwich University Shock Platoon reporting in for armed platoon exhibition drill, requesting permission to utilize your drill deck, sir!”

(Zind) The Norwich University exhibition drill team, the Shock Platoon, is holding its final rehearsal before heading to New Orleans to compete in the national championship for college drill teams. The 19 drill team members move in perfect unison. They march, line up in tight formations and march some more. The cadet’s World War I rifles are a blur as they’re spun, tossed end over end, crisply shouldered and then snapped to ground.

This is the first time in years the Norwich drill team has been in serious competitions. If their performance so far is any indication, they’ll do well in New Orleans on Friday. They’ve notched victories over military powerhouses like West Point, the Air Force and the Coast Guard.

Corinne LeFrancois is the drill team commander and one of five women in the group.

(LeFrancois) “We practice five days a week, two hours a day. This last Saturday, we held a six-hour practice.”

(Zind) Despite the regimentation of exhibition drilling, LeFrancois says there’s room to improvise. A drill team can develop its own uniquely choreographed moves, as long as they perform them in unison. She says the judges look for one thing above all else.

(LeFrancois) “Unity. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you can do everything as one unit, as if you’re one person.”

(Zind) LeFrancois says teamwork is one of the lessons of exhibition drilling. Cadet Matthew Angoy says there are others as well.

(Angoy) “A sense of discipline. You get a sense of discipline from everything you do in here. It takes precision, it takes time, it takes motivation, it takes dedication to actually get out here every day.”

(Zind) Along with performance, appearance counts in competition. The cadets are wearing neatly pressed gray tunics, or blouses and gray trousers for this dress rehearsal. Drill team Sergeant Brian Hickey gives Cadet Angoy a quick once over.

(Hickey) “Take a quick look at the shoes. Shoes aren’t that great, but that’s okay. He has nice creases in his blouse, it’s clean. He has a shiny belt buckle and nothing looks too sloppy right now, so he looks great.”

(Zind) A closer look reveals cuts on Angoy’s hands. The rifles look light when the cadets are handling them, but they’re surprisingly heavy.

(Angoy) “Every cut on my hand tells a different story about a different move I tried or something crazy I tried to throw up or missed or caught.”

(Zind) The squad will compete in five team events and two individual events. For all of them, it’s their first time in the national championship. They’re nervous, but hopeful they can win it all.

(Hickey) “If we perform like we just did a couple of minutes ago, we can take it. I really think we can.”

(Drill leader) “Requesting permission to leave your drill deck sir. Carry on!”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind at Norwich University in Northfield.

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