Leading from the Front
Nov. 4, 2004
by Jesse Hulsing
Vince Lombardi, the legendary head coach of the NFL's Green Bay Packers, once said, "Leaders aren't born, they are made."
Case in point: Casey Armstrong.
The Huskies' senior forward from Kent is one of three captains for a talented UW squad which has surged to the top of the Pac-10 standings with a 4-1-1 conference record, putting the Huskies in position for their first Pac-10 title since the 2000 season.
Armstrong, however, isn't the type of leader who pumps up the team in the locker room.
"I'm not a 'rah-rah' type of guy, I'm not the guy who will try to pump people up with my words," says Armstrong. "It's just not in my nature. I'm more of an action leader, one the team follows by example, mostly because I'm always working hard."
Ah, yes, the hard worker.
Anyone who has played organized sports knows the type -- the teammate who always puts in the extra 20 minutes after practice, the one who runs just a little bit harder during wind sprints and who always adds an extra set during weightlifting. He is the one who sets the bar that his teammates try to reach, only to then find it raised, once again, a little higher. This teammate is all substance, little talk -- a true on-field leader.
Casey Armstrong has turned himself into that enigmatic teammate. The keyword there, however, is "turned." Armstrong, who took a few years before adjusting to his leadership role, is living proof of Lombardi's words.
When Armstrong arrived at Washington in the fall of 2001, the Huskies were ranked among the top teams in the country, and by the end of the season had fought their way to the NCAA Tournament's second round. With such a talented corps around him, Armstrong saw little time, appearing in just six games and tallying only one goal, against California.
In 2002, however, a Husky team ranked 10th in the preseason stumbled to a 6-10-3 record and a fifth-place Pac-10 finish. For Armstrong, the season was especially tough. The sophomore appeared in all but two games, yet still finished without a single goal or assist on the season, an ignominious mark for a forward. The team's record, however, was not reflective of any one individual's struggles -- the entire team needed to re-evaluate their efforts, and commit themselves fully to success in 2003.
"We came into our offseason on February 6th of my sophomore year, and we started to train, " Armstrong recalls. "At six o'clock in the morning, four days out of the week, we just worked our tails off."
Practices in the spring and summer were as intense as any Armstrong can recall, with every player giving 100 percent at every minute.
"There was a new attitude," recalls Armstrong. "We didn't want a repeat of what happened the year before."
Armstrong is talking about the team, but he might as well be talking about himself. Disappointed with his lack of scoring in 2002, he made a commitment to assert himself more on the field, and to become the true on-field leader he thought the team needed.
The junior's efforts led to three assists and four goals, including two game-winners, as a team featuring just a handful of new faces turned their losing record of the year before into a 13-5-2 mark, and made the deepest NCAA Tournament run ever by a UW team, reaching the third round before losing in overtime at St. Louis.
Armstrong learned from that experience that taking on the pressure of a leadership role makes him a better player.
"(Being a leader) makes me want to work harder, it makes me not want to take a break," he says. "I know someone is always watching, no matter what I am doing."
This year, in addition to his role as captain, Armstrong has helped mentor a strong group of freshmen, touted by many as the most talented class in Washington history. Armstrong was a talented prep player himself once, though, and having played in just six games his freshman year, he can speak from experience on the difficulty of transitioning from high school to the collegiate level.
"The soccer is 100 percent different from high school -- everyone is faster, stronger and bigger," he says. "I like to help a lot of them with the transition. You have to keep them humble, but it's also important to keep their heads up."
Perhaps he can teach them about making themselves a leader, and taking their team to new heights. It's a subject he truly knows best.