Last week during the waking hours, when most Fresno State students are still cozy in bed, the Bulldog basketball team was at Warmerdam Field next to the North Gym.
As the sun finally began to creep above the tree line, the team stood in line, dressed in training clothes, waiting with anticipation for its orders, as a drill instructor in Army fatigues looked on.
“Let’s go,” yelled Corey Souza, a sergeant cadet in the Fresno State Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
The 14 members of the basketball team shot forward. The mile run was the first task in a series of exercises in a weeklong program designed by Souza.
From Monday through Friday, the Bulldogs met every morning at 6 a.m. sharp for an hour of training.
The program, a collaboration between the ROTC and the Bulldogs basketball team, was designed to train the players in the same fashion of an Army boot camp.
Bulldogs coach Rodney Terry came up with the idea, which was presented to Master Sgt. Donald Spock.
“Coach Terry really wanted an Army-like disciplined program, where they have to pay attention to detail, (and) stand in formation,” Spock said. “We speak the same language; we just kind of had different accents and words that we use, but we’re all going the same direction.”
After the run, the Bulldogs weren’t allowed to catch their breath.
“Let’s get on (the) line,” Souza ordered. “Let’s hustle!”
Putting on authentic Kevlar vests complete with Army camouflage, the ’Dogs lined up horizontally. With a command, they hit the grass, still wet with morning dew.
The players slowly crept forward in an Army crawl, low through the grass.
“It’s about 60 degrees out,” said 2nd Lt. Arturo Ramirez. “Crawling through the grass really requires mental toughness.”
Reaching the end of the crawl, the ’Dogs stood up. Half the players found a partner, hoisted him on his shoulders, and ran the distance back.
They repeated the process several times. In the final lap the ’Dogs walked the length, bending their knees to a 90-degree angle while carrying a partner on his back.
“You first want to get them tired,” Ramirez said. “Get them out of the zone so they can start focusing on helping each other. Because that it what they will be doing out on the field.”
Lt. Col. Lorenzo Rios, a professor and department chair of military science, supervised the exercises.
Rios said that the program’s goal is to push the players beyond their limitations.
“They’re all pushing themselves and finding that plane where that’s the most they can perform, and they’re finding a way past that,” Rios said. “They’re going past those mental blocks. If anything that’s going to help them as a team, it’s to understand that, once they hit that wall, they still have more and they can push through it.”
“I think it’s going to bring them closer as a team,” he said.
The program was the first of its kind, Spock said. But he hopes it won’t be the last.
Spock said he had been thinking of new directions to take the ROTC since joining the program a year ago.
Terry’s proposition was too good to let pass by, Spock said. He believes it was successful, and wants to make it even better before next season.
“We want to continue to improve on it, to refine it,” he said.
Once the kinks are worked out, Spock plans on reaching out to the other sports programs to become involved, he said.
“We’re going to seek those other teams and ask if they’d like to participate,’’ Spock said.
Souza joined ROTC four years ago, he said. However this was the first time he took the role of drill instructor.
Not an imposing figure at 5 foot 7 inches tall, Souza admitted he felt a little intimidated standing among the Bulldogs, many of whom stood at a towering 6 feet and higher.
But it was impossible for the ’Dogs to ignore Souza, who barked orders in a voice that could rival any true bulldog.
“They gave me respect that they would give their coach, and I showed the same respect back to them. I treated them as professionals, as adults and as athletes,” he said.
Soaking wet and panting, the Bulldogs were still not allowed a moment to rest. Souza ordered the team to grab one of the large water containers waiting by the track and
wasn’t going to let the team slack off.
“I didn’t say walk,” Souza yelled. “Move with a purpose. Hustle!”
The basketball players picked up large, beige water containers weighing up to 15 pounds each, with leaking caps, and lifted them above their heads.
As the water dripped from the loose caps, drenching the players who were still wet from the grass, the ’Dogs used the containers to perform a shoulder press, then held the jugs above their heads for up to 15 seconds.
After a set of pushups, the players hit the grass again for another crawl.
The players started showing signs of strain, and a few began to lag behind on the grass.
They didn’t know what to expect when they walked onto the track the first day.
“We were expecting to come out at 6 in the morning and do some track work and run around,” senior basketball player Garrett Johnson said. “But we ended up crawling through the grass and carrying jugs — it blindsided us, but it was for the better.”
Something began to change in the players’ drive.
“At first it was tough,” Johnson said. “But now, you start to get used to it. You start to adapt to it.”
A few of the players who finished the crawl jumped back onto the grass next to one of their struggling teammates.
Crawling side by side, the players that returned to the uncomforting grass spoke to their teammates, spurring them on to finish the final stretch of the exercise.
“I know we will be mentally stronger,” Johnson said.
It was moments like the Bulldogs pulling together that impressed Souza the most.
“There were several players that exhibited natural leadership potential. They brought their teammates alongside them. They were constantly encouraging them, constantly had that dedication to perfection,” Souza said.
“That gave me a lot of pride to see that.”