By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandNovember 6, 2011
MOLENA, Ga. -- The kings from queens that reign over Junior ROTC drill competitions might be building a Raider Challenge dynasty, too.
Francis Lewis High School of Fresh Meadows, N.Y., a Queens suburb, added two more national titles to its collection, besting the male and female divisions of the 2011 JROTC National Raider Challenge Competition this weekend at the Gerald I. Lawhorn Scouting Base.
It was a repeat in the mixed-gender category as well, with Smith-Cotton High School of Missouri snagging the winner's trophy.
Unlike last year when Francis Lewis' teams dominated the meet, there was no clear advantage this time. And that didn't bode well for retired Master Sgt. Peter Rompf, the Raider coach.
"The competition is so tough, you don't know (if you won) till the end," said Rompf, who got a mere two hours of sleep Saturday night because he kept contemplating whether his teams would win.
"I'd rather not sit there winning every trophy. The electricity of this isn't good for my heart, but it's good this way."
In the five team categories -- fitness tests, 5k run, cross-country rescue, one-rope bridge and the Gauntlet -- Francis Lewis' female squad won three events and the males won just one. Overall winners were determined by adding the cumulative finish of a team in each competition category, with the lowest total winning.
Rompf figured that for his teams to win overall, they would need to have had other schools finish in front of programs that could vie for the crowns. And that's just what happened, as 13 different schools earned first-, second- or third-place trophies in a particular competition category.
The males won by the widest margin, topping Osborne (Ga.) High School 14 points to 24 points. The Francis Lewis females barely repeated, edging Grissom (Ala.) High School 10 points to 12 points.
And Smith-Cotton won handily over fellow Missouri program, Waynesville Career Center, eight points to 13 points.
Jackie Chen and Tiffany Lee, commanders of Francis Lewis' male and female teams, respectively, attributed the victories to determination and hard work. They said they were particularly surprised by the wins, coming with a host of newcomers on the squads.
"We worked from the ground up and put a lot into it," Chen said.
Competing with so many new people on the teams made for a never-racking conclusion, Lee said.
"You never know" if you'll win, she said. "We just do our best. We leave the competition knowing we gave everything we had."
At Sunday's awards ceremony, Col. Hubert Bagley applauded the Cadets' effort and resiliency. The director of Army JROTC, after spending the weekend watching the participants in action, quickly admitted he couldn't have done what they did.
Bagley was in awe, he said, of the fact that no matter the physical and mental challenges Cadets faced throughout the competition, none of them quit.
"I'd venture to say there isn't a football player or a basketball player that can walk in your shoes," Bagley said. "So when you go back to school, hold your head high because you're the best your school has to offer."
In all, some 660 Cadets from 35 schools around the country competed in this weekend's competition, all but two representing the Army. The reason: few JROTC programs in other services field Raider teams, said Justin Gates, the national Raider competition director.
The focus of the meet shifted Sunday from team competition to individual performance though the individual competitions had no bearing on the team results.
The Ultimate Raider Challenge pitted males and females in a race to see who could alone endure a combination of several challenges teams encountered Saturday. With schools able to select only one representative per team it entered in the national meet, those Cadets were required to run nearly a mile in boots on a track that was part-pavement and part-dirt road. They then trekked over the hilly and leaf-covered terrain of the cross-country rescue course, tackled a 20-yard low-crawl and had to scale a 12-foot high wooden wall at the finish.
Joselin Rodriguez of Osborne (Ga.) High School had run cross-country before. But she hadn't run in boots -- and full speed at that.
Rodriguez had trouble early on from the pavement pounding her feet with each step and by the time she reached the low-crawl, she was exhausted. She got on her hands and knees, her back hunched and her face hanging just over the ground.
Rodriguez seemed to move in slow-motion, trying to muster the strength to finish.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she said afterward. "Once you get tired, it's tough."
As Rodriguez lay nearly prone on the ground, fellow Cadets lined the course to cheer her on. She said their encouragement triggered something inside.
"At times you feel you can't make it," Rodriguez said. "When you hear everybody cheering you on, it gives you that motivation to finish."
For many programs, the chance to compete at the national level proved a major boost to Cadet morale as well.
The program at Jenkins County High School started in 2007. Many of the its students come from low-income households, and poverty is rampant throughout the small Millen, Ga., community, said retired Command Sgt. Maj. Hayward Thompson, one of the school's JROTC instructors.
But Cadets haven't let their economic situations hamper their ability to succeed. Thompson said Jenkins County has won back-to-back state Raider championships, and competing nationally -- something they don't normally do due to finances -- was valuable exposure for his students to other programs from around the nation.
"This is Hollywood to them," Thompson said. "It's like going to the Olympics."