Carrie Wortham liked the idea of a surprise ending.
When she graduated from St. Catherine's School last year, the student-athlete had scholarship offers to William & Mary, the University of San Francisco and that one place that put a little tickle of uncertainty in her gut.
"I was at St. Catherine's for 13 years," Wortham says. "I wanted something different. I thought William & Mary might have given me the same experience. I wanted to be at a place where I didn't know how I would end up. What would it do for me? What would it do to me?"
Virginia Military Institute welcomed Wortham last fall as a rat, the school's nickname for a freshmen until he or she completes the initiation process. Wortham entered on an athletic scholarship to run cross country and compete in track and field.
VMI opened its doors to women in 1997, and now they make up 10 percent of the school's roughly 1,300 cadets. And only half of the women on campus play a Division I sport — soccer, cross country, track and field, and swimming and diving.
VMI could be the toughest Division I school at which to recruit female student-athletes. It is also hard to keep them because women drop out at a 28 percent clip. With such limited numbers, it can be challenging to field a full squad — Wortham's cross-country team last year competed in the Big South Conference championships with the mandatory minimum of five runners. The Keydets finished fourth in the conference, their best showing ever.
"When I was the coach at Florida State, I could have recruited 200 kids if I wanted to," says Paul Spangler, the women's cross-country coach for VMI. "We had 50 runners on the cross-country team. Here at VMI, I can cut down my recruiting numbers pretty quickly. Not everyone is looking for a military education."
But it seems Spangler has been successful on the recruiting trail recently, with six incoming freshmen. The list includes Jenna Moye of Cosby High School in Midlothian.
Other Richmond-area VMI student-athletes include junior Danielle Dove (track) of Lloyd C. Bird High, sophomore Olivia Moore (soccer) of Powhatan High and Christelle Ndongo (soccer) of St. Catherine's.
"There are a lot of advantages to VMI that high-school seniors don't know about," Spangler says. "For example, I believe VMI is near the top in the nation in alumni giving dollars per graduate. That means the alumni think a lot of VMI, and many of them are doing financially well.
"When I talk to student-athletes, I tell them that graduating from VMI opens a lot of doors, especially for women. When an employer or an admission department for a medical or law school sees that you thrived in such an environment, it usually opens their eyes."
It may be hard to recruit female student-athletes at VMI, but it's a great place to coach them.
"These kids are hard workers," Spangler says. "They are very mature and very determined. Their attitudes make coaching more enjoyable. You don't ever have to worry about them going to class or making a grade."
Wortham says she loved her first year at the school. She adds that St. Catherine's overprepared her academically. But nothing can ready a woman for the overall experience.
"You have to want it, and I don't think a lot of girls who come here really want it," Wortham says. "You have to do everything the boys can physically and outshine them in the classroom.
"It's hard to be a girl at VMI, so many of us stick together. We keep our heads up because there are still those who believe we shouldn't be here."
Did she make the right decision in choosing the road less traveled?
"Yes, I definitely did," Wortham says. "Definitely there are times I've wondered why I didn't go to William & Mary. But I think every kid thinks about their decision. I know I'm at the right place."