By By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandMay 4, 2012
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The field of contenders vying for a national drill team title this weekend is as open as Justin Gates has ever seen.
But don't get him wrong. Not just any school has a shot at taking the coveted hardware.
The way Gates, the competition director for the National High School Drill Team Championships, sees it, close to a dozen teams from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have legitimate chances of winning. And he should know, having seen most of the teams that will perform at the 30th annual national meet that gets under way Saturday at the Ocean Center.
"We've never seen so much talent at the top," Gates said. "You've literally got a good team that's going to finish eighth. That's just the nature of the event. It's going to be amazing to watch.
"There are teams coming to this meet that will be very good and should be proud of that because there's nothing that can compare to the talent of an all-services championship."
Some 127 schools from across the country will take part in the meet that will be divided into two divisions. The challenge level will take place Saturday for less-experienced programs. The masters level, featuring the sport's most experienced programs, will be held Sunday and Monday.
This being the 30th anniversary of the meet, Monday night's awards gala will be highlighted in part by the unveiling of the National Military Drill Hall of Fame by Sports Network International, which founded the meet and continues to run it. One of the inductees will be the Army's Old Guard silent drill team.
The ceremony also will feature presentations from the famed King's Guard and an Army performance squad. The guest speaker is Col. George Fredrick, the professor of military science at Georgia Southern University.
As for the competition, leading the Army charge will be Douglas MacArthur High School, one of the programs Gates lists among the elite. The San Antonio school won both the armed and unarmed championships at March's Army nationals and earned the unarmed national title in Daytona last year.
A confident retired Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Rochin, the Douglas MacArthur drill coach, expects his students to be toting another trophy back to Texas.
"There's no question they're a superior team," he said. "They're seasoned and one organized group."
Since winning the Army nationals, MacArthur Cadets have been practicing twice a day five days a week and on Saturdays. They have been working to get down a new nine-person exhibition routine and honing other aspects of their performance.
Winning both divisions of the Army meet proved a major confidence boost.
"They're prepared," Rochin said. "They're not leaving anything to chance.
"They're in it to win."