For Colt Sterk, the dream of West Point began in eighth grade. That year, he wrote an essay that won him the honor of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
"When I grasped the fact that this soldier willingly gave his life for me, a stranger, just so I can live freely, it made me want to serve my country as well," recalled Sterk, now an 18-year-old senior graduating from Eagle High.
That was the spark, and his interest in the nation's oldest military academy was enthusiastically shared by his best friend, Cyrus Cappo. Cappo's older brother, Chase, was a cadet at West Point - and a big influence on the two boys, who met while playing Optimist football.
Chase helped coach the boys' football team before he left for the academy in New York. He brought home exciting stories about life at West Point and opportunities to travel and study abroad and meet members of Congress and other dignitaries.
"The more I learned about it, the more excited I got. West Point is hallowed ground," said Cyrus, rattling off legendary graduates such as Gens. MacArthur, Grant, Lee and Patton.
While in junior high, Colt and Cyrus began talking about going to West Point. Their parents thought the boys might change their minds along the way, but the military academy remained No. 1 on their college lists - even after they visited Ivy League schools such as Princeton and Cornell last summer.
"They have never wavered from this goal," said Misty Sterk, Colt's mom and a biology teacher at Eagle High.
She admits she wasn't sold on her son going to West Point until after Colt and Cyrus did a weeklong leadership camp at the academy last summer.
"At least you know what you're getting into," Misty Sterk said.
Everyone told the boys that it would be unlikely for two students at Eagle High to get accepted to West Point in the same year. That made the wait for notification all the more nerve-wracking: What if only one got in?
Cyrus was home when he received word from Sen. Mike Crapo's office in late February about his appointment to the academy. Colt missed the call from the senator's office and suffered a sleepless weekend, but was ecstatic when he finally learned he was accepted.
"It had been my dream since the eighth grade, and it finally came true," said Colt, who looks forward to the challenge and camaraderie of West Point. "Brothers for life."
West Point's mission is to train leaders of character to provide "selfless service" to the Army and the nation. Appointees receive free tuition, room, board and medical care in return for five years in the Army after graduation.
Colt and Cyrus studied the admissions criteria, which demand candidates who are scholars in top physical condition and leaders in their schools and communities.
The Eagle teens gained leadership experience by participating in student council, Boys State and other groups. They play different sports - Colt ran cross country and track, senior captain of both; Cyrus played football and was lacrosse senior captain - but pushed each other to get stronger and faster.
"Colt wasn't as strong in weight training. Cyrus would say, 'Get up, let's go lift,'" Misty Sterk said. "Colt would make Cyrus run."
Both benefited from high-intensity crossfit workouts organized after school by Eagle Police Officer Aaron Miner, a school resource officer. He's offered to help them get boots before they head to basic training in July.
FOUR FROM EAGLE HIGH
Seventy-nine students from Idaho applied to West Point this year. Of those, 18 qualified, said retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Albert Gomez, Idaho's senior field admissions officer for the academy. Fifteen received appointments and 13 accepted.
"Some years, we've only had two," Gomez said, a 1979 graduate of West Point.
"The numbers have exponentially increased as our quality of candidates have increased," Gomez said. "When I talk about quality, I'm talking about exceptional academic qualifications."
That means top scores on ACT and SAT tests, AP classes, GPAs and class rankings. West Point also looks for athletes who are leaders.
Four Eagle High seniors were accepted to West Point, the largest number for an Idaho high school in Gomez's 17 years; however, it is not the largest number ever from a U.S. school, another West Point spokesman said.
Eagle High's top-ranked senior Rachel Milam - who had a 4.3 GPA after seven semesters - was accepted to West Point, but opted instead for Harvard University on an ROTC scholarship.
"She was probably the most sought-after candidate in all of Idaho," Gomez said.
Another top Eagle High student, Corey Nielson, was looking at Brigham Young University until he spoke with a West Point football recruiter last year.
"I thought about the military itself, but I didn't think of going to any of the academies," said the athlete, Eagle Scout and student body leader.
It didn't take much research for him to realize that he was a good fit.
"I really like to work. I have the most fun when I'm doing something," Nielson said. "West Point feels like the place to be - it's people who like to work and get things done, and people who are going to be the future leaders of America."
Nielson, who played defensive end for Eagle High, plans to try out for the Army football team. He's a singer and hopes to join Glee Club after his freshman year.
FULL BATTLE RATTLE
Before they hit the books this fall, Colt, Cyrus and Corey must complete Beast Barracks, a six-week basic training boot camp. The camp concludes in mid-August with a 17-mile march in "full battle rattle," including rifle and 40-pound rucksack, Gomez said.
"You've got to be physically fit and ready to execute training," he said
Intense competition among cadets drives excellence.
"Most of these candidates are the big fish in the little pond. When they get to West Point, they find out they are the little fish in the big pond," he said. "At West Point, everyone is the same. Everyone is just as good."
When they graduate in 2017, all will become second lieutenants ready to lead troops into war.
"The real test is on the battlefield," Gomez said.
Katy Moeller: 377-6413