Pensacola News Journal | by Madison Arnold | April 22, 2021
Pace High School’s Navy JROTC program beat out more than 600 schools to earn a national drill championship this year.
The program was awarded first place overall in the Navy Nationals Academic, Athletic and Drill Competition, which members of the team describe as the “Super Bowl” of Navy JROTC. The drill team was honored at an award ceremony at Pace High on Thursday afternoon.
“I think it was just a surreal moment whenever we got announced. We’ve been working so hard for it and just being announced as actually being the No. 1 (drill team) in the nation, it’s just such an accomplishment you can’t wrap your brain around just in that exact moment. It takes a couple minutes to be like ‘Oh wow. We really just won that thing,'” said Caitlin Proper, a junior at Pace High and this year’s public affairs officer.
Navy JROTC is an elective offered for students at Pace High, which has an enrollment of about 160 students, and it’s meant to teach citizenship and leadership development. Fifty of those students participate in the extracurricular drill team, whichhas practiced every weekday morning from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. since September.
In a normal year, the drill team would compete in four or five meets in a season but because of COVID-19 restrictions, they were only able to attend one local competition. The competition includes five different drill categories, as well as three athletic events such as push ups and a 100-yard relay and academic tests and inspections.
Each spring, the country’s top 24 teams are chosen to compete in a national championship. This year it was held virtually so Pace’s drill team had to video record their drills and athletic events and send off academic tests to be graded.
“Our drill practices and preparing for this competition almost was our rally cry to have some fun together and work toward a common goal still. It became, for a lot of students, their ‘why’ in a difficult year, (which) was ROTC and being on the drill team and working toward trying to win this championship. So (in) a lot of ways, it helped get us through the year also,” said 1st Sgt. John Baker, Pace’s naval science instructor.
The national champions were announced virtually this year, instead of at its normal spot on Naval Air Station Pensacola, so the drill team members, as well as school administration, watched it together in a classroom at Pace. Baker said with every category that was announced, Pace ended up in the top five, which gave them a good shot at landing the overall championship.
“(I was) just thinking as we get through those, ‘Hey, I think we may win this.’ And so at No. 2 and No. 1, I had my phone out ready to start recording the kids. And when they announced the first place overall, we were in the classroom. Our principal administrators were in there with us. And it was euphoria,” Baker said, adding that his video has received thousands of views online.
The individual category results were:
- 5th in pushups
- 4th in curl ups
- 2nd in 100-yard relay
- 3rd in unarmed basic drill
- 1st in armed basic drill
- 5th in unarmed exhibition drill
- 2nd in armed exhibition drill
- 5th in color guard drill
- 1st in academics
The student leader of Pace’s JROTC is Cadet Commanding Officer Justin Liaw. He found his way to JROTC after simply noticing it was a free program on a brochure. Now, Liaw is Pace’s valedictorian and has been accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy.
“There’s like a week before school where they kind of teach us what ROTC is about and how it’s all ran, but the senior leaders there and seeing students running everything was the most amazing thing to me, and that was when I decided I wanted to be one of those leaders as well,” Liaw said.
Liaw said this year’s team was less experienced than in years past and had plenty of freshmen. He knew that meant the team had to grind to live up to the school’s reputation.
While neither Proper or Liaw are from military-connected families, Liaw said the schools around Escambia and Santa Rosa counties have strong military cultures, which makes the JROTC programs even more competitive.
Escambia High School most recently won the same honor in 2014.
“One thing we always say here is ‘steel sharpens steel.’ The schools in the area are highly competitive and we compete against each other pretty heavily,” Liaw said. “We really work to beat each other and that ends up making us all better, so really the culture of NJROTC in the area is something that helps us out.”
Featured image: Pace High School’s Navy JROTC program beat out more than 600 other high schools to be this year’s NJROTC national champions. Gregg Pachkowski