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Home : News
NEWS | Feb. 20, 2024

Connecticut Guardsman represents Armed Forces at 2024 Florida Classic Tournament

By Sgt. Matthew Lucibello

AUBURNDALE, Fla. — Stadium lights pierce the darkness and illuminate a finely groomed field beneath them as the sun gives its final bow over the horizon. As the light fades, a strong breeze rolls over Lake Myrtle, and takes the field, crashing into Spc. Ethan Mounts, a unit supply specialist with D. Co., 1st Battalion, 102nd Infantry Regiment, from Middletown, Connecticut, competing with the U.S. Armed Services soccer team in the 2024 Florida Classic Tournament at the Lake Myrtle Sports Complex in Auburndale. For a moment it feels like home to him.

Mounts has been playing soccer since he was five or six. His father threw him to the wolves one day, signing him up for a local parks and recreation league, eager for his son to pick up a sport. Mounts quickly fell in love with the game, playing throughout his school years, eventually progressing to play in Major League Soccer Next, the highest youth league in the U.S. for men.

“With MLS Next, you play a lot of the MLS Academy teams,” said Mounts. “We played Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, New York City FC, New England Revolution, and that’s just to name a few. You go into competing tournaments that are filled with teams [from across the nation] and a ridiculous number of college scouts are looking at you.”

Mounts performed well enough to be scouted by a few schools himself. Despite this, he yearned to be part of a different kind of team.

Since he was five years old, Mounts had an interest in the military. One of his favorite pastimes was always playing army with his brother. Mounts’ uncle, Kevin Miller, also played a part in cultivating this interest, serving a contract in the U.S. Marine Corps, Miller would constantly share stories of his time in uniform, which resonated in Mounts. Realizing he wanted to finish his education, and that the National Guard would cover the cost of college tuition, Mounts joined the Connecticut Army National Guard in June 2021. He initially enlisted as an infantryman with a split option contract, meaning he would start drilling, complete basic training following the end of his junior year of high school, return home, finish school and then finish his specialized job training, also known as advanced individual training, following his graduation.

After completing basic training at Fort Benning, now Fort Moore, and spending some time with his unit, Mounts decided he wanted to do more with his military career and become a commissioned officer. Not only that, Mounts wanted to surround himself with people who had a competitive drive like those he found out on the field, peers that would push him to do more than just pass. So, he decided to apply to the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point.

The U.S. Military Academy, founded in 1802 in West Point, New York, is the oldest of five military academies in the United States. Each of these academies is responsible for educating cadets to commission as officers in their respective branch of military service. The U.S. Military Academy is one of the hardest schools to gain admission to in the country, due to its high academic and personal character standards. Additionally, each cadet must pass a physical fitness assessment during the application process. The acceptance rate is around ten percent.

“The academic rigors of it are something you won’t get at any other school,” explained Mounts. “I do want a challenge, I want something that will put me outside my comfort zone and [cause me to] not be complacent. At West Point, everyone holds you accountable, even your peers there. You can’t cheat, you’re going to be held accountable for all your actions.”

Initially, Mounts had to attend the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School because his SAT scores were lower than the school’s standard for admission. The Preparatory School is designed to assist applying cadets to meet the Academy’s academic expectations.

While at the prep school, Mounts once again found himself on the field. Despite prioritizing his academics, he joined the school’s soccer team in August 2022, playing for an entire season. Due to his drive and athletic skill, he was named the MVP for that season and also earned a preferred walk-on spot for the Academy’s soccer team the following year. Unfortunately, despite eventually graduating from the prep school, Mounts wasn’t able to take that spot due to not meeting the Academy’s GPA requirement by 0.06 percent. By not meeting this requirement, Mounts was forced to return back to the Connecticut Army National Guard, although he was allowed to reapply and attend with the class of 2028.

Due to his initial contract being terminated following his application to West Point, Mounts chose to reenlist as a unit supply specialist and became qualified in his military occupational specialty in September 2023. While learning his job, he was contacted unexpectedly by U.S. Army 1st Lt. Oscar Pereira, his old soccer coach from the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School. Pereira explained that there was a U.S. Armed Forces team, composed of players from across the branches of the U.S. Military, that months from then would soon be participating in a public tournament, the 2024 Florida Classic.

Since 1948, the U.S. Military has had many sports teams under the banner of the U.S. Armed Forces Sports program. The goal of these teams, and the program, is to promote a positive image of the U.S. Armed Forces, promote and incentivize physical fitness among service members through competitive sports and to provide a means for military athletes to compete in national and international competitions, such as the CISM International Military Sports Council World Military Championships. There are currently 25 men and women team, and individual, sports in the program.

“He put a word in for me to the coach,” said Mounts. “Before joining the Army, I had no idea the Army had soccer teams until 1st Lt. Pereira told me about it. He told me about the All-Army team and that I could do it. So I got more interested, did my own research into it, and then the coach (of the U.S. Armed Services Soccer team, U.S. Army Maj. Joshua Greene) hit me up and told me about this tournament and asked me to play. He gave me an opportunity to showcase myself [at the All-Army tryouts] in March.”

Mounts communicated his desire to attend and represent the Connecticut National Guard to his leadership, who signed off on his trip.

“They were very supportive, said Mounts. “1st Sgt. [Zane] Barber (The enlisted leader of Mounts’ unit) wanted me to showcase myself down here more than anything. He was a soccer coach and he wanted me to come down here and showcase myself to the Army and show what I can do. The support is everything, without that you wouldn’t do well. [Support from unit leadership and friends back home] helps boost your confidence on and off the field.”

On Jan. 9, 2024, as snow began to touch down in Windsor Locks, Mounts’ commercial flight took off from Bradley International Airport and headed south. After collecting his belongings from the airport, he traveled to his hotel, only two miles away from the Lake Myrtle Sports Complex, and began mentally and physically preparing for the games to come.

The first day of practice was Jan. 11, at the National Training Center athletic fields, in Clermont, and was the only practice session the team, who never played together before, had before the start of the competition.

Introductions were quick and cordial. The players learned the most about each other as they were put through their paces by coaches Jay Reynard, the head coach for the All-Navy team, and U.S. Air Force coach Jeremiah Kirschman. Some players hadn’t even arrived yet and would be falling in on the team at their first game. Unlike Mounts, not every service member who attended the trip was as fortunate enough to have their unit allocate the resources to send them at no cost. Many used their personal leave days and traveled on their own dime to participate in the competition.

Mounts was selected to play as a defender for the competition based on his experience playing as a center defensive midfielder and outside back in his youth and while playing for MLS Next. For the tournament however, Mounts only played as an outside back, covering both left and right back. As an outside back, his goal was to defend his area of responsibility and assist the goalkeeper in preventing any goals from being scored. Additionally, he would move to challenge opponents that were approaching his area of the field, where he could then intercept the ball and redirect it to his teammates so they would be able to attempt to score goals.

The first game was on Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. against the ISA All Stars. The U.S. Armed Services team started off strong and won 2-1.

“That’s the hardest part, playing with a [brand new] team,” explained Mounts. “The chemistry is not there, everyone’s uncomfortable, you’re in a new environment, no one’s comfortable in the sense of like, knowing anyone, talking, communicating. So playing with them, for the first game, was hard, even in practice was hard. Then we got used to each other. Once we scored our first goal, we built the chemistry together, and each and every game after that we played better and better and better.”

The following day, the team faced off against Scarborro Azzurri, but unfortunately lost 2-0. They came back strong in the early afternoon of Jan. 14, winning against Drita Soccer Club 4-0. However, fatigue began to set in from games day after day. Later that same day, during the semifinal against Czarni Jaslo Chicago, an offensive push from the Armed Forces team resulted in a successful penalty kick goal. After that, the then tied score was beaten by a subsequent goal from Czarni. The Armed Forces team couldn’t recover, despite fighting tooth and nail on the field, and ultimately lost 2-1, which knocked the U.S. Armed Forces team out of the competition.

“I felt disappointed at first,” said Mounts. “Afterwards, I felt good with how our team played because we were able to keep up with teams that played for a while, we just got to know each other that weekend. I felt I did the most I could do at [my] position.”

The following day, many of the players began their journey back to their duty stations. Those who already had a return flight later in the week came together one more time to reminisce and enjoy some time together. For some, this would be the last time they would play together. Others held out hope they would be able to try out and make their branch’s respective team, knowing full well the possibility that some players may face off against each other at some of the inter-service competitions. Nevertheless, despite not going home with gold in hand, the team felt content playing their hearts out and having forged fond memories out on the field with their new found friends.

“This was a good opportunity to display myself, not only for me but for my unit and the National Guard. I gained a lot of experience trying to communicate with people I’m not used to,” said Mounts. “It’s good to have a new coach that gives you a new perspective on how to play the game. It was fun to play in Florida, compete against new teams, and compete with new faces I’m not used to. The trip was a blast.”

Mounts is currently reapplying to attend West Point. Additionally, he is applying to attend the All-Army soccer tryouts at Fort Cavazos in March and participate in the U.S. Armed Forces Tournament, held at Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, Georgia, in April. In the meantime, he continues to serve with his unit in the Connecticut Army National Guard.