By By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandMarch 31, 2012
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Let there be no doubt.
Douglas MacArthur High School is home to Army Junior ROTC's best drill teams.
The sport's reigning unarmed national champion, the San Antonio program blitzed through a diverse field Saturday to take the armed and unarmed divisions of the first Army National JROTC Drill Championships at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
It was a dominant performance from a program that has been a perennial power that edged out national rival Francis Lewis High School last spring for the national crown. MacArthur was runner-up to Francis Lewis at the same meet.
This time, Douglas MacArthur's command of the drill pad came against 71 teams from 50 of Army JROTC's best drill programs -- including Francis Lewis, which ended up second in armed and seventh in unarmed.
"It's a great feeling," said Cadet Robert Isenhour, commander of MacArthur's armed team. "But the competition is not over. You've got to keep working hard every day."
Both MacArthur and Francis Lewis will square off again in the National High School Drill Team Championships in May in Daytona Beach, Fla.
After years of debate, officials with U.S. Army Cadet Command decided last spring to discontinue region meets in favor of one that would crown a true national champion. Slots for Saturday's event were divvied among the seven brigades with JROTC and based on the number of programs within the brigade footprint.
Justin Gates, of event organizer Sports Network International and the competition director, said the change set up the most competitive field seen at an Army meet.
"We're continually in awe of how drill has progressed as a sport over the last 25 years," he said. "The talent in the Army is amazingly deep."
Those on hand to watch Cadets exhibit their skill were taken aback as well.
"I have one word for today, folks: Wow," said Col. Peggy Combs, deputy commanding general for Cadet Command and the featured speaker at the meet's awards ceremony. "I am truly blown away by your talent."
Douglas MacArthur's armed squad won two of four competition categories -- inspection and exhibition -- and finished second and third, respectively, in the other two -- regulation and color guard. The unarmed group won color guard and exhibition and took fourth in inspection and regulation.
"We worked so hard, and we deserve it," said Cadet Mali Lopez, commander of MacArthur's unarmed team that beat North Miami Beach Senior High School. The competition was "nerve-wracking. You never know what will happen in these situations."
Francis Lewis was gracious in defeat, with its Cadets and coach congratulating the Army champs.
"We'll see you in Florida," Francis Lewis' coach, retired Master Sgt. Lawrence Badia, said.
He felt early in Saturday's meet that his teams might not contend for the overall title.
"We're not where we need to be," Badia said. "Thank God we've got five weeks till Florida. We've got a lot of work to do."
A number of Cadets who had competed regionally in the past at the Eastern and Western meets welcomed the chance to pit their skills against teams from the opposite side of the country.
"There's more heat on you to do better," said Cadet Berlinda Cebien, of Union (N.J.) High School. "We can definitely see if we're ready to go to Florida and compete against the big dogs."
Having competed in the final Western drill meet last spring in Phoenix, Alexander Tresner could sense a stronger passion among Cadets at the Louisville event.
"It looks like the others, but it's not," the Leavenworth (Kan.) High School Cadet said. "There's a different aura.
"Everybody is proud to be here."
As his school's drill team commander, Tresner said the buzz inside the convention center demanded more focus so his commands could be heard and wouldn't be confused with other calls coming from performances on adjoining drill areas. While he might normally try to mentally block out the extraneous noise, Tresner actually enjoyed it.
"That's all passion, and I'm taking it in," he said. "I love the fact that we're at an Army nationals. This is the way it should be."