Storied tradition lies at the Naval Academy, traditions that have attracted many young men and women since the late 1800s.
In one way or another, athletes from Carroll County have emerged among the standards of excellence at Navy over the years. They've already surpassed their high school barriers and have chosen to continue their athletic pursuits at a school where discipline and aptitude are combined.
Casey Rees didn't think the military lifestyle was a fit for him at first, until his father and brother encouraged him to give it a chance.
Rees, a midfielder for the Navy men's lacrosse team, has steadily emerged as a key playmaker in his second season for the Midshipmen. As a freshman, he played in all 14 games on the second midfield line.
His brother, Matt, is a long-stick junior defender on the Mids' lacrosse team. Their father, Cliff, graduated from Navy in 1988 and is a former member of three NCAA Tournament basketball teams, including the 1986 team that basketball hall of famer David Robinson led to the Elite Eight.
Casey didn't necessarily have an easy start to his collegiate career. Like his older brother, he spent a year at the Naval Academy Prep School prior to gaining admission to Navy.
"It started off rough, especially in my plebe year," Casey said. "Adapting to the lifestyle wasn't easy but once I settled in, it got easier. It truly helps you develop skills for later in life and multitasking will definitely help when I graduate too."
The Rees family are natives of Sykesville, but Matt and Casey both attended and played lacrosse at the Boys' Latin School in Baltimore. There, the brothers surrounded themselves with other talented athletes that pressed their skill levels.
Matt Rees enters his junior season ranked eighth on Navy's career caused turnovers list with 29, including a team-best 20 so far this season. During his sophomore year in 2015, the Midshipmen finished the season ranked 13th in the nation on defense and Rees earned second-team all-Patriot League. He also started in all 14 games as a freshman, the first to do so on defense since 2000.
So far, he leads the team with 20 ground balls and has three goals and an assist in four games this season.
"Every day I'm here gives me a chance to improve as a person and as a lacrosse player," Matt said. "Playing lacrosse helps because you form such a tight-knit bond with your teammates and you learn skills you wouldn't get at other places."
'The best of both worlds'
Prior to setting foot on campus, former South Carroll girls basketball standout Makeba Ndifang knew that Navy could provide her with more than just athletics.
"When I first made the decision to attend Navy, I had done some research on my own and thought it was such a great school with a great athletic program," she said. "I figured I could get the best of both worlds here and my parents agreed. When we visited, I liked the atmosphere so that played a big role in my decision."
Ndifang, the 2013 Times Player of the Year, was a member of three county-title winning teams coached by Liz Padgett at South Carroll. She also played volleyball for one year. When the time came for Ndifang to make a college choice, she said many of the lessons she learned from Padgett played a role in her adaptation to Navy's rigorous standards.
"Liz was so adamant about practice being such high intensity and putting in a 100-percent focus," Ndifang said. "Everything here is about a team effort and playing for the pride of your program and giving 100 percent every day.
"She just saw so much potential in me and there were so many times in the gym where we would work on things and she would help me with things I could do off the court by myself. That's really where it all began."
Like Mullen and the Rees brothers, Ndifang attended the prep school for a year and she sought advice from Mullen after she tore her achilles tendon.
"I had never been hurt before that so it was weird to see things from the sidelines," she said. "Seeing the game from a different perspective helped me learn so many other things that you sometimes don't see as a player."
Last season, Ndifang appeared in just one game for the Mids, totaling just three minutes. This year, she's made appearances in five games and has totaled 12 points, 12 rebounds and three steals.
Rather than get discouraged about playing time, Ndifang has taken it as an opportunity to work twice as hard to continue to improve her own game.
It has also helped her make lasting memories with the Mids so far.
"Looking back and seeing all the things you're able to do with the people you've met and the relationships I've made with my teammates is just unreal," Ndifang said. "Any Division I player can have this feeling but it's different because there's the military aspect as well."
Focus and balance
Ashley Ross knew she loved to run, and run fast, but didn't know a lot about track before high school.
Once she joined the team at Liberty, she worked her way into competing in different events and garnered success upon graduating from high school in three years.
Ross, the Times 2012 Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year, earned six letters in indoor and outdoor track and field, and another in volleyball. She won the Maryland Class 2A 300-meter state indoor title as a senior and helped lead the Lions in back-to-back 2A outdoor state titles in her junior and senior years.
Now in her senior year at Navy, Ross has continued to balance a successful athletic career with the Midshipmen. She is currently a co-captain for the women's track and field team and said she's been given a great opportunity in doing so.
"I knew I wanted to pursue athletics but wasn't sure if it would be possible academics-wise," Ross said. "It's truly been one of the most rewarding experiences and I've gotten so much out of it with the bonds I've made with the coaches and team here."
As a plebe, Ross remained close to her Carroll County roots, and her attraction to Navy increased once she discovered a "dual-family" at the academy.
This season, Ross ranks among the top ten in the Navy Women's Performance List by event in the 4x400 relay and the 400-meter run. The Mids will compete in the George Mason Last Chance Invite in Fairfax today.
"The discipline here is very useful and you're responsible for time management here just like in high school," Ross said. "You learn to balance and focus on your athletic ability but when it's time to focus on academics, you have to really separate the two."