Francis Lewis
Jasmine Fung, co-captain of Francis Lewis's unarmed team, talks on the phone, May 6, 2013, night about the team's win while she and co-captain Wenbin Zhang wait to take photos with the championship trophy inside Daytona's Ocean Center, in Daytona Beach, Fla.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 6, 2013) -- A national title drought discouraged some veteran members of Francis Lewis High School's unarmed drill team.

Despite the fact they helped build the team into a perennial power at the sport's highest level since winning a national crown in 2010, it wasn't enough not to win more regularly. So they quit, leaving the Patriot Pride dominated this year by freshmen performers.

Those newcomers, feeding off the experience of seniors who were part of the school's last national winner, propelled Francis Lewis back to the top of the unarmed division, May 6.

The New York program, the largest in Army JROTC, narrowly recaptured the national championship, beating Brandeis (Texas) High School, an Air Force unit, by six points.

Schools are judged in five categories -- inspection, regulation, color guard, squad exhibition and platoon exhibition. Teams can earn 1,200 points in each for a total of 6,000.

Francis Lewis racked up 5,760 points, winning regulation and squad exhibition with perfect scores.

"They really worked hard," said retired Sgt. 1st Class Helen Batts, the Francis Lewis coach. "There were times where they were more determined than me. They had the discipline, stepped up and it showed."

The 31st annual masters level national meet featured more than 50 Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps schools from across the country, duking it out on the drill floor over two days of competition at Daytona's Ocean Center. The masters level is designed for the most experience and skilled JROTC programs.

On the eve of the year's biggest drill meet, Randall Hickox tore two ligaments in his left wrist while practicing a rifle spin. The Cadet from Airport (S.C.) High School went to a doctor, who gave him two things: A splint and orders to reduce the stress on his wrist.

But by Monday morning's dual exhibition competition, Hickox had shirked both. After losing the splint during an earlier event, the sophomore took to the floor with Patrick Nix, his left hand to the middle of the forearm wrapped in padding and gauze.

"I love drill with a passion, and I'm not going to let this stop me," Hickox said. "I guess you can call me hard-headed."

Competing in the national meet for the first time, Milby (Texas) High School students relished the experience of participating at the sport's highest level. Cadets found there is little margin for error when up against the nation's best.

"Every detail counts," senior Salina Hermosa said.

Being at the national meet gave Milby Cadet leaders a chance to gauge where they stand against the country's stiffest high school competition, junior Jennifer Estrada said. Knowing it took talent to make it to this weekend's masters level event, she sees room for improvement.

"Just because you're good doesn't mean you can't get better," Estrada said.

Doing so sometimes means taking non-traditional approaches. She went up to judges after some events in which her school performed to find out what they considered weak points.

"This is something new and challenging," Estrada said. "We see what we need to work on and hope to be back."

Marmion Military Academy hoped to ride the wave of an Army Nationals title to the top of the National High School Drill Team Championships demilitarized arms division. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, as the Army champs from Illinois ended up fifth in Daytona.

The national meet tends to be a nerve-racking experience for many Cadets, with dozens of people looking on as they execute their performance. For those like senior Stuart Kofron, there was the added responsibility of ensuring his team's younger Cadets were ready and focused.

"We're one big team, so we all share the pressure together," he said. "We've been prepping all year, so we know what we're in for."

Kofron competed Monday with junior Alex Kirtley in solo exhibition and ended up fourth. As the two warmed up prior to taking the floor, running through their routines, Kirtley eyed his performance with considerable anticipation.

"There's nothing like this," he said. "You step on that floor and get a huge adrenaline rush."

Fung and Zhang were feeling a rush after Monday night's win, mugging for pictures with the 6-foot-tall trophy. Fung's phone buzzed continuously with congratulatory texts and phone calls.

The scene was drastically different than the night of the Army Nationals last month in Louisville, Ky., when the unarmed team was sixth, its worst finish at a service-level meet in years. But that night sounded an alarm to Francis Lewis Cadets, who had become accustomed to winning countless trophies and events in the New York region.

"We went to Kentucky and -- boom -- we didn't get it," Zhang said. "It was a wake-up call."

The team went home, collected itself and focused on fixing mistakes judges pointed out. The team that performed this weekend in Daytona Beach was much different than the one that took the floor a month ago, Fung said.

In fact, she expects the national success to attract a number of new Cadets who want to be part of the team, as well as some of those who bailed earlier this season.

"They'll have to compete for a spot like everyone else," Fung said. "This was the whole reason I wanted to be part of the team; I wanted to be a champion."

Page last updated Tue May 7th, 2013 at 07:49