The air was filled with the first real chill of autumn in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains near Molena, Ga. More than 1,000 Junior ROTC cadets from across the country had gathered in the piney hills for the All-Army Raider National Championship. Among those gathered were the teams from Marion High School. The Giants were no stranger to competing at Nationals with this being their seventh visit in as many years. They knew what awaited them. But more importantly, they knew the caliber of their competition.
Teams compete with 10 cadets and are categorized as either Male, Female or Mixed (Coed). The Mixed (Coed) teams must have a minimum of four females compete in each event. The Giants fielded a Mixed and an All-Male team. All the teams within each gender category compete for time on five different events designed to test their strength, endurance and teamwork. The Nationals give individual event awards, and also recognize the achievement of the top three finishing schools in each gender category. JROTC programs with less than 150 cadets are considered small schools.
The Marion High School JROTC Raider Team competed at the National Championship in Molena, Ga., Nov. 6 and 7, 2021.
“We are a smaller JROTC program with just over 100 cadets,” said retired Lt. Col. David Farlow, Senior Army Instructor for the Marion High School JROTC program and coach of the Raider team. “At Nationals, we compete directly against private military academies, and JROTC programs of several hundred cadets. We are literally like a David facing up to Goliaths.”
In the past three years, the Giants have won the National Championship twice in the small school category and were the runner up the other year. In overall ranking (regardless of school size) the highest they have ever placed was fourth in the nation.
And early on that first Saturday in November as the sun slowly rose above the mountain tops, the Giants stood at the base of a mountain to begin the grueling 5 Kilometer (3.1 Mile) Mountain Run.
“I really don’t want to do this,” Marion High School senior Dajaia Weaver, who had attended three previous National Championships, recalled thinking at that moment. “My stomach was flipping, and I was holding back the tears because I knew how hard it was going to be.”
On the command go, the Giants’ Mixed team began the ascent of the mountain. The grade was about 30 percent, and the dirt path was fraught with roots, rocks, sticks and other debris that could easily cause a fall. Up the mountain the team ran to the turnaround point. And then the descent back down. The cadets urged each other on, pulling, yelling, crying, doing anything to garner more speed.
At the finish line waited Farlow and a few parents of cadets. One asked the veteran coach: What would be a good finishing time?
“I said I would start looking for the team after the 26 minute mark — but that would be if they were really hauling a**,” Farlow recalled. “A more realistic time would be around 27 to 28 minutes.”
And then the inconceivable. Another parent said she heard from up the hill the assistant coach Fred Johnson yelling and encouraging the team. Farlow looked at his watch and noticed that just 25 minutes had passed.
“I told the mom that was not likely us,” Farlow said. “It just wasn’t possible. And then a line of purple shirts began to come into sight just a short way up the mountain from the finish line.”
Farlow, and then the gathered parents, began to jump and scream in disbelief. The Giants, running strong, crossed the finish line with a blistering time of 25:24.88!
“I was ecstatic, I was amazed, I felt so good, even though I felt like I was going to throw up,” said Weaver, reflecting on what her team had just accomplished.
The Giants knew immediately that this would be the time others would have difficulty beating. It was 3:54 faster than the time they turned in the previous year.
As the Giants moved to their next event, there was a feeling of confidence that exuded from the team members. They were beginning to believe that the impossible just might be possible.
The next event was the Physical Team Test (PTT), a half-mile all out sprint that requires the cadets to crawl through tubes, jump over walls, carry five-gallon water jugs and heavy ammo cans, and move a canoe with 250 pound of ballast as fast as possible.
Marion High JROTC Raiders rapidly carry a canoe with 250 pounds of ballast as one of the tasks during the Physical Team Test at the Raider National Championship.
The Giants turned in another superb performance, finishing 3:45.22, which was 12 seconds faster than their run the previous year.
And the Giants’ confidence continued to grow.
But the 1-Rope Bridge River Crossing is the nemesis of Raider Teams. It requires the team to have the first cadet wade across the river and tie a rope to a farside tree. The team tightens the rope to a nearside tree and then eight of the cadets hook up and shimmy across the suspended rope above the river to the other side. The distance between the trees is 85 feet. Once the second to last cadet has unhooked from the rope, the remaining member of the team wades quickly across the river. Once everyone has crossed the river and the rope is out of the water and all knots are removed, the team yells “time!”
Marion High School JROTC cadets rapidly cross the 85-foot span over a river on a 1-Rope Bridge they constructed.
And then it happened.
The last cadet had cleared the river, the rope was being pulled to the shore and the knots were being removed. But an unusual thing happened. The knot in the rope was untied before all the rope was out of the river.
“This had never happened before in practice or in competition,” said Farlow. ”The rope is always across before the knot is untied. It just takes longer to untie the knot.”
Working against the clock and on past experience, team commander Nic Elliott feverishly worked to untie the knot from the rope knowing that time would stop once he was finished.
“Time!” Elliott called out once the knot was removed.
But the tail end of the rope was still in the water. Cadets Haden Montgomery and Evan Ray pulled with all their might to get the last bit of the rope out of the water. And then just mere seconds later the rope cleared the shore and time was called again.
But all the cadets knew the cost for the mistake of calling time before everything was complete: a 60-second penalty. So the Giants’ total time with the penalty was 4:08.09.
“That was not a good time with the penalty,” Farlow Said. “It would likely drop us down in the standings to the middle of the pack.”
Ray put the penalty into perspective: “I felt personally the penalty didn’t affect the quality of the team; it was a mental error. I think we all knew that we needed to bust our butts on the last two events since the score on the rope bridge would likely hurt us.”
Indeed, the Giants’ time on the Rope Bridge was still 1:06 faster than their time the previous year, keeping them well ahead of their own pace from 2020.
Next up for the Giants was the Cross-Country Rescue, an event designed to replicate the evacuation of an injured person on a stretcher. The team carries six 35-pound backpacks and a stretcher with 150 pounds to simulate a casualty. They scale a 9-foot wall, wade through a 60-foot mud pit, run about one mile, and then low-crawl 60 feet while dragging the litter and backpacks. This event tests a team’s ability to synchronize their movements expeditiously through all of the obstacles, while the distance tests their strength and stamina.
As the Giants formed up for the event, Stephany “Milkshake” Miksch stepped forward and asked to be removed from the event. She had been battling a headache all morning and didn’t feel that she could perform at her best for the team. So, sophomore Jocelyn “LoGo” Lopez-Gomez was called into action for her first event of the day.
When she was informed that she was substituted in for the event, Lopez-Gomez had her own worries.
“My head just hurt too much to care,” she remembered. “I was feeling a bit sick and was so nervous. But I just did what needed to be done.”
The Giants exploded through the event. The graders commented on how fast they scaled the wall. And the team finished with another amazing time of 9:50.37, which was 1:54 faster than their time from the previous year.
“The adrenaline was going.” Lopez-Gomez said. “I could tell that all of the practices finally paid off.”
Marion JROTC cadets scale the 9-foot wall as part of the Cross-Country Rescue event at the Raider National Championship. The Giants placed first on the event.
Elliott, the team captain, said only one question remained.
“We knew this was a great time,” he said. “We just didn’t know how it compared to the other teams.”
The Giants advanced to their final competitive event, the Gauntlet. In this event, the cadets with 35-pound backpacks and ammunition crates go through a suspended tire, scale a 9-foot wall, and crawl through two 20-foot culverts along the .75-mile course.
“I knew that we had to smoke the Gauntlet since we didn’t do so well on the Rope Bridge,” Ray said. “We have been good on this event all year, and we needed a solid performance.”
And once again the Giants delivered, coming in at 30 seconds faster than their time last year with a time of 6:06.28.
“It was a very solid time,” Farlow said. “But you just don’t know how well the competition is doing.”
The Marion High JROTC Raiders rapidly go through the suspended tire as part of the Gauntlet event.
And so the Giants had to wait until the next morning for the results. For many, it was a restless night of wonder and worry. On Sunday morning a list was posted announcing the teams that would need to attend the Awards Ceremony. Those on the list knew they had placed in something. Those not on the list would have a quiet ride home. Marion was among the teams listed.
“We had improved our time on every event over what we did last year,” said Farlow. “And we won the Small School Championship last year, so I thought we had a real shot at it again this year. But the waiting was horrible.”
The parade field was assembled with all of the top Raider teams, it was truly the best of the best.
The first event results to be announced were from the 5K Mountain Run, starting with the fifth place finish working toward first. Without knowing the times of the other teams, the Giants had no way of knowing their placement.
“We were so on edge when we hadn’t been announced by the time they reached the third-place finish,” Miksch said.
And then the unimaginable: Marion took first place!
The Giants erupted in cheers. The coach jumped and wailed. In six previous years of attending the Raider Nationals, the Giants had never earned above a fifth place finish on any individual event.
And then the announcement came for the PTT, with the Giants taking third in that event.
Then, the Gauntlet, with the Giants capturing fourth place.
“Other teams, the big schools, began to look at us, like, ‘Who are these guys?’” Farlow said.
Then the announcement for the Cross Country Rescue. Fifth, fourth, third, second, and no mention of the Giants.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe we didn’t do as well as I thought on this event,’” Elliott recalled.
Then the announcer said: “Marion, first place.”
The team, family, and friends of the Giants erupted.
“I was calculating in my head,” Farlow said. “We are in contention for a top five overall placement. But I knew the Rope Bridge was going to be a problem.”
As feared, there was no mention of the Giants in the placement awards for the Rope Bridge event.
Then the announcer called off the placements for the small school teams. Marion was thrilled to hear their name called in first place, earning their third National Championship title in the past four years. But still they waited and wondered: Where had they placed overall, against the bigger programs and military academies?
As the overall placements were announced, the Giants earned an amazing fourth place finish, being bested by only one military academy and two enormous JROTC programs.
“I cried, I was so shocked,” Miksch said. “It was, like, unreal. We were in awe.”
Elliott said their supporters drove their success.
“This was the year that I realized that we are not competing for ourselves, but for everyone in our community who believes in us,” he said. “We were able to pull together to work as a team. We achieved goals that we really didn’t think were possible, like earning first place finishes in two separate events. Marion had never done anything like that before.”
That Sunday night at the hotel on the way home, the Giants reflected on the win, their performance, and the scores.
“It was a good feeling that we were the small school champions, but we were so close to winning it outright,” Cadet Josh Piña-Tellez said with a sigh.
The one-minute penalty on the Rope Bridge had cost the Giants the second place finish overall. And without the penalty and just a six-second improvement on that event, they would have been the number one team in the nation from among all the schools.
That is when the Giants realized that they, being David, could potentially beat the Goliaths.
With the experience gained by some of the younger cadets who competed on the all-male team for the Giants, earning 19th overall in the nation, it’s clear that the Giants are well-positioned for continued success.
“Next year, we will win it all,” Piña-Tellez said, as he joined Elliott, Ray, and others gathered in the lobby of the hotel that Sunday night to talk with Farlow about next year’s team. They identified training weaknesses and areas for improvement, specifically how to avoid the dreaded penalties on the Rope Bridge.