As dusk settled and the dense forest began to engulf him in darkness at all sides, his Harker Heights teammates were involved in their own battle at the Ellison soccer field 80 miles away.

Ethan Roden was all alone, forced to fend for himself as he tried to navigate five individual points amongst a two-square mile labyrinth of trees on Camp Swift, outside of Bastrop.

With time winding down and encroaching nightfall making it difficult to even see the piece of paper he was using to record his progress, the Knights’ senior midfielder pushed on, finding all five points during the land navigation portion of the statewide Army National Guard Best Warrior competition held Feb. 8.

But, much like the Eagles squad his teammates were competing against back in Killeen, the darkness won out in the end as Roden was unable to read his own handwriting in the dark and was only credited with finding four of the five points.

Of course, the 18-year-old high schooler didn’t leave too disappointed.

“It felt really good when you’re on your own, it’s dark out, and you have to find your way throughout the land,” said Roden, who despite being a high school senior is already a private first class in the Texas Army National Guard Recruitment and Retention Battalion.

After being selected from the local Recruitment Sustainment Program, otherwise known as Team 8, based out of the National Guard Armory off of South W.S. Young Drive, Roden won his soldier class consisting of specialists (E-4s) and below at both the region and battalion “Best Warrior” events. At the four-day state competition last month, Roden finished second among his class and fifth overall, which included those in the officer class of sergeants and above.

“It felt good to be able to relay on myself and when I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” Roden said. “There wasn’t anybody else that did that for me, I wasn’t given anything, and I felt a really good sense of satisfaction and accomplishment there.”

Being the leader

Eighty miles back at home, the Ellison Eagles upset the Knights 4-2 for the program’s first-ever victory over Harker Heights.

Ellison (16-6-1, 10-4 8-5A) went on to win their second-round District 8-5A meeting, this time with Roden at Heights, and secure its first playoff spot since 2001 as the district’s No. 3 seed. The Knights (14-8-4, 6-6-2) also advanced to the postseason, their third straight, and will take on District 7-5A champion Midlothian in the second game of a bi-district doubleheader at 8 p.m. Friday at Waco ISD Stadium.

A big reason for Heights’ success this season has been Roden’s growth and leadership, both he attributes to his military service.

Roden contributed a school-record-tying four goals in a 9-0 playoff-clinching win over Temple on March 12 and his work on defense helped the Knights to a 0-0 tie of then-district leading Waco Midway in the regular season finale Tuesday.

“I call him ‘President.’ I tell you, if he focused on being the president of the United States, he’d probably do it — he’s that type of kid,” Knights soccer coach Jared Cruddas said. “I’d follow him.”

Teammates have jokingly promoted him to “general,” acknowledging both his position on the team and the bright future they all see Roden capable of.

“I just shake my head and laugh, I appreciate it, and it feels good,” Roden said. “I feel like I have worked enough to earn the respect, and where I haven’t — or if people don’t know about it — it’s not like I’m real full of myself. I try to stay humble.”

Handling the load

During days he is training for competitions, Roden wakes at 5:30 a.m. and does not lay down again until around 11 at night.

In between, there is early morning soccer practice, before-school tutoring, five hours of AP classes, 1-1½ hours spent training at the armory and then about five hours at his job dishing frozen yogurt at the TCBY in Harker Heights.

“Ethan can do it all, and he can do everything well,” Cruddas said. “He’s just the type of individual that can do it all, and he’s stretched a little thin this year because he’s trying to do it all.”

That doesn’t include the once-a-mouth weekend of required National Guard training and the bi-weekly soccer games he did his best to attend, when there weren’t conflicts.

“A hundred percent of the time, it’s always just do what I can, when I can, where I can 100-120 percent as best I can,” Roden said.

There have been drawbacks of course. Along with missing the occasional game or practice, Roden admitted he hasn’t really been able to enjoy his senior year like most students.  And his busy schedule leaves no time for socializing.

“I will definitely say, it feels lonely at times taking this road trying to work to secure a life and everything,” he said.

So Roden maintains his all-American lifestyle — school, practice, work, family — simply because there isn’t time for anything else.

“It’s definitely difficult. I haven’t been to a prom yet. I was kind of wanting to go this year, um, but it’s been awhile since I talked to a girl, so I’m a little shy about it too,” Roden laughed.

Roden’s finally trying to settle in for what’s left of his senior year. He gave up his alternate position he qualified for at the national Best Warrior competition, and now with playoffs starting this week, soccer is starting to slow down as well.

Of course, with his commitments to the National Guard and his quest to possibly enroll into Texas A&M’s Army ROTC program, it’s not like his life will come to a halt.

“Probably the worst part of it is there’s still a lot of work involved in it, even if it’s just a once-a-month thing, in between they’re still making me work,” said Roden, who visited A&M this week to look into the ROTC program. “It is the Army.”

Contact Alex Byington at or (254) 501-7566

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