Army JROTC crowns new drill champions
April 6, 2013
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Drill teams, as good as they might be, never really know the strength of their talent until after competition judges hand in their scores.
It's one of the great unknowns of the sport: Is a good team good enough to win? The answer: yes and no.
Going up against a deep field in Saturday's second annual U.S. Army Cadet Command JROTC National Drill Championships, Cadets with Marmion (Ill.) Academy and North Miami Beach (Fla.) Senior High School figured they were doing well. But they weren't sure.
Until the judges had their say.
Marmion and North Miami won the overall titles in the armed and unarmed divisions, respectively, beating out some of the service's perennial powers and last year's champions.
"The competition level at the national level is so high, anybody can take it at any time," said retired Maj. Michael Rountree, senior Army instructor for North Miami Beach.
Marmion, which finished a distant fourth last year, vaulted national contenders Francis Lewis (N.Y.) and Smith Cotton (Mo.) High School to capture the top spot. Douglas MacArthur (Texas) High School, which won both the armed and unarmed crowns in 2012, finished fifth and fourth in those divisions Saturday.
The victory surprised Marc Derrico, Marmion's armed team commander. He said the team hadn't experienced much success in smaller local and regional competitions earlier this season.
But he and his fellow Cadets managed to shine at the right time.
"We were saving up for this one, and kicked it in," Derrico said. "We turned it into a new gear."
Marmion finished in the top four in each of the four competition categories -- inspection, regulation, color guard and exhibition -- winning two of them (color guard and exhibition). James Madison (Texas) High School took second overall.
On the unarmed side, North Miami Beach only won one category -- inspection -- but finished strong enough in the others to pull off the win over runner-up Smith Cotton.
"Like a lot of other programs, we're starting to build a tradition," Rountree said. "We'll keep working. Every time you compete, you learn things about your team. Every competition is a growing process."
More than 2,200 Cadets and instructors representing 72 schools from across the country were involved in Saturday's competition at the Louisville International Convention Center, making it the largest single service meet of its kind ever held, said Justin Gates, competition director for Sports Network International, which conducts meets for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The organization also operates the all-services National High School Drill Team Championships.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Smith, Cadet Command commanding general, served as guest speaker for Saturday's awards ceremony. He applauded the students' accomplishment of qualifying to compete nationally, being a collective small percentage of the more than 300,000 Cadets who make up the total Army JROTC corps.
"You all represent the best our country has to offer," he said. "This is a national championship, and you made it here. Not many people can ever say that. That you made it here speaks to who you are and what you are doing."
The meet, for most, marked the culmination of months and countless hours of practice.
Between events, Christina Galindo huddled in a meeting room in the lower level of the convention center with her Winter Springs (Fla.) High School teammates, polishing rifles for an upcoming armed inspection. The task offered a bit of a breather since she had already been part of regulation and color guard competitions.
As the team readied for its final event of the day, Galindo, the team's commander, said the events had been somewhat nerve-racking. But the junior expressed confidence at Winter Springs' performance.
"We work hard, so I know we're going to do well," she said.
Winter Springs Cadets had been practicing for the Army Nationals since school began in late summer, going for two and a half hours most days of the week. For Galindo, a self-proclaimed "drill freak," she has spent additional time on her own honing her skills.
Drill, Galindo said, is different from other sports in which she competes because of the mental toughness required to handle and overcome the monotony of learning and performing the same routines over and over again.
"One slight mistake can shatter what we've worked for," she said. "That's disheartening. But we love it. You can see the improvement."
Several teams competing Saturday will go on to the National High School Drill Team Championships next month in Daytona Beach, Fla. Among them will be West Charlotte (N.C.) High School.
Some Cadets from the team known as the Mighty Lions used the Army meet as a scouting expedition of sorts to gauge where they stack up heading into the season's biggest and most prestigious competition.
"It's a way for us to get better," Cadet Olajuwon Jackson said.
And to prepare themselves to face the intensity of being the center of attention on the drill pad.
Jackson compared competing to riding a roller coaster. One is usually nervous as the ride begins. There's a sense of exhilaration through the brief trip. When you're done, though, you want to do it again.
Jackson admitted being nervous as he led his armed color guard. But considering the amount of time he spent practicing in recent months, the challenge wasn't remembering the moves he needed to execute but keeping himself calm during the process.
"You just have to go step by step, and take long pauses," he said.
Meanwhile, as the all-services national meet looms, many teams will quickly refocus their efforts on readying for the season-ending competition that brings heightened intensity and unknown challenges from opposition many Army squads have never seen.
"We've got a lot of work to do," said retired Master Sgt. Lawrence Badia, coach of Francis Lewis. "We'll be back at it on Monday."