Hanford High grad blossoms as leader at West Point

Hanford High grad blossoms as leader at West Point

Hanford High School graduate Dani Mendoza is one of two captains this fall for Army’s women’s soccer team at West Point.

Hanford High School graduate Dani Mendoza is one of two captains this fall for Army’s women’s soccer team at West Point.

Army West Point Athletics

It’s one thing to be a team captain on a college sports team.

It’s another thing to be a team captain on a United States Military Academy sports team. It automatically shows how much leadership you have, and how respected you are by your teammates.

Such is the case of Hanford High School graduate Dani Mendoza, who has been one of two captains this fall for Army’s women’s soccer team.

The positions are voted on by teammates.

“Being voted a captain is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received,” said Mendoza. “Here at West Point, it’s seen as another military position.”

Mendoza, a 5-foot-4 senior midfielder for the Black Knights, doesn’t just lead on the soccer pitch.

“I’m in charge of a company,” said Mendoza. “I’m responsible for their academic performances. Upperclassmen take those responsibilities.”

A company is usually a little over 100 cadets.

The previous year, when she was a junior, Mendoza was a squad leader for eight other cadets.

Born Daniela Linares Mendoza, she is the daughter of parents who immigrated from Mexico. Mendoza herself holds dual citizenship for the United States and Mexico.

While in Richland, soccer and hard work — on the field and in the classroom — came easy for Mendoza.

4 time All-Star

On the field, she was a four-time Mid-Columbia Conference All-Star — three of those times as a first-teamer.

Mendoza goal
Hanford High School graduate Dani Mendoza is one of two captains this fall for Army’s women’s soccer team at West Point. Mady Salvani Army West Point Athletics

In the classroom, the 2018 Falcons grad earned valedictorian honors.

But she had a tough time figuring out what would happen after graduation.

“As a junior in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do for college,” said Mendoza. “I did know I wanted to play college soccer somewhere. Joining the military was not something I thought of.”

Mendoza was playing for her Olympic Development Program (ODP) team, and headed to regional team trials in Florida, when she got a call from a coach at Army, looking to see if she’d be interested in coming there.

“I thought, ‘Why would I want to go to a military school?’ So my parents checked it out, and my mom and I took the trip to see it in person,” said Mendoza. “I came away seeing it as the best of both worlds. I get to play college soccer, and I get an education. And it’s not a normal school.

“The difference is I have military responsibilities to take into account every day.”

When Mendoza says the U.S. Military Academy is not a normal school, she means it.

“At normal schools, when summer comes around, you do whatever you want,” she said. “Here, summer is taken up with military training.”

And the mechanical engineering major who carries a 3.46 grade point average has her days filled with activities.

“I average about 5 hours of sleep each day,” said Mendoza.

MENDOZA_DANIELLE.jpg
Danielle Mendoza’s official portrait for the United States Military Academy’s 2021 Women’s Soccer Team at West Point. (U.S. Army Photo by John Pellino (U.S. Army Photo by John Pellino

That day usually starts for her by waking up around 5:50 a.m.

Sometimes she and her teammates will get in some weightlifting at 6:30 a.m. Other days, Mendoza and her classmates start with morning formation at 6:45.

“The first hour of classes begin at 8:45 a.m.,” said Mendoza. “Lunch is at noon. The final hour of classes for the day end around 4:10 p.m.”

Soccer practice runs from 4:45 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., and dinner follows. Then homework begins around 8 p.m.

“You’re pretty lucky if your homework is done by 11:30 p.m.,” Mendoza admits.

It’s a tough schedule. But everyone at the school understands the drill.

“The majority of professors here have been here as students,” Mendoza said. “So they know what the expectations are.”

Student athletes

Head coach Tracy Chao was hired at Army West Point for the 2020 season, coming from Metropolitan State in Denver.

She’s been impressed with what these student-athlete cadets go through.

“I think these are not your normal college athletes,” said Chao. “This life they have is different from what other college athletes have. These are unbelievably strong and tough women.”

Mendoza defend
Hanford High School graduate Dani Mendoza is one of two captains this fall for Army’s women’s soccer team at West Point. Mady Salvani Army West Point Athletics

And the camaraderie is incredible.

“This senior class has cultivated a culture here, helping bring freshmen through seniors together,” said Chao. “Integrating freshmen into a group is not easy.”

As a soccer player, Mendoza’s position as a midfielder is a tough one.

“There is a lot of running. I love it,” said Mendoza.

That’s good, said Chao, because she has to do a lot of it.

“The midfielder, No. 1, has to be a box to box player,” said Chao. “You have to have the capacity and fitness to run box to box. On the defensive side, it’s about winning those 50-50 balls or goalkeepers balls that come to you mid-air.”

Mendoza has been a big part of the Black Knights team these past four years:

  • In 2018, she was one of two freshmen to play in all 20 games for the Black Knights, starting 10 at midfielder.
  • As a sophomore in 2019, Mendoza started in nine contests and played in 16.
  • In the shortened spring season of caused by the pandemic in 2020, Mendoza played in just one game as she nursed an ankle injury, and team had a 4-1 record.
  • This fall, as a senior, Mendoza has played in 15 of the Black Knights’ 16 contests, and has two assists.

As of Oct. 29, Army is 6-8-3 (3-4-2 Patriot League) and has qualified as the sixth and final seed in the Patriot League Tournament. The Black Knights were to play No. 3 seed Loyola Maryland on Oct. 31.

‘Commitment and presence’

It’s been an interesting season.

“The strength of this team is of the four years of being here, our sisterhood is the best since my freshman year,” said Mendoza. “But our weakness has been our consistency on the field. We have the ability to be the best team in the Patriot League.”

Don’t forget, adds Chao, the team went from spring season to summer military drills and right back into a fall season. So a lot has been put upon them.

Mendoza, said Chao, has led this team into the playoffs.

“I had the opportunity to meet her in the spring (when I was able to start coaching here),” said Chao. “Throughout the summer her commitment and presence with the team was noticeable. She and our other captain make our lives as coaches easier.

“She rolled into this season making an impact from the first game,” Chao continued. “Her strength is her voice. We look to Dani for leadership. She has energy. She is relentless on the field. Dani is awesome.”

With her athletic eligibility almost expired, Mendoza will have graduation in the spring, and then a commitment of five years to the military.

“After that? To be honest, I don’t know. I’m pretty open minded (about possibly continuing her career in the armed forces),” Mendoza said.

But she knows she’s made the right decision attending the academy.

“It’s been a very big difference between here and high school,” she said. “In high school, I thought I had everything figured out. But this place was quick to humble me with the challenges found here.

“I’ve developed tremendously here, and I have a lot of confidence.”

Jeff Morrow is former sports editor for the Tri-City Herald.

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