Just when it seems like Adairsville High School's JROTC Raider teams can't get any better, they do.
The female Tiger team won state and national championships while the male team came in No. 1 in the state and No. 2 in the nation at Raider competitions the past two weekends.
Commanded by senior Sandra Nally, the females bested last year's second-place performance to bring home the national championship, and the male team, commanded by junior Steven Lynch, missed the national title by two seconds.
"These kids we had on the team this year exceeded my expectations with their performance," Army instructor 1st Sgt. Jerry Queen said. "Even more important than them winning is the fact they are all high-character kids that care about each other and don’t want to let one another down."
Being named the top small school in both divisions and the overall champion and overall runner-up is the highest finish two AHS Raider teams have ever had in the same year at nationals, Queen said.
"This is the best finish ever and the best finish by any school in the country that brought multiple teams," he said, noting they had first- and third-place finishes in 2014 and two second places last year. "Sarasota Military Academy had a first in the mixed division, a fourth in the female division and a 15th in the male division. That was the closest by any team."
Senior Army instructor Maj. David Sexauer said he was "exceptionally proud" of all three teams' performances — including the ninth-place overall finish out of 33 teams by the mixed team, led by junior Blu Walker — at nationals as well as "each member’s effort."
"They attacked each event as a team, stuck to our strategies and did what they had to do under the pressure of the national stage," he said.
The male and female Raiders dominated their divisions and brought home state titles from the Georgia State Raider Championships at Spalding High School in Griffin Oct. 27.
The females swept all five events, and the males took first place in four events and second place in the fifth event on their march toward the national championships.
"Our teams crushed it," Sexauer said. "Our teams were largely untouchable, more fit, more rehearsed, more poised under pressure. Our new and young mixed team truly over-performed. They have a bright future."
The state competition moved to a three-tier system last year, with large schools and military academies with three or more instructors being tier 1, small schools with two instructors and less than 130 to 140 cadets being tier 3 and schools falling between those two being tier 2, according to Queen. Adairsville landed in tier 3.
"Just to explain why they do tiers, we have 110 cadets in our program with about 75 males," Queen said, noting AHS "might be the smallest program in the entire competition." "Riverside Military Academy has an average of 500 cadets that are all males."
At state, the Tiger Battalion was part of the 74 teams from 41 public and private schools across Georgia to compete.
The male division had 28 teams total with eight in tier 3; the female division had 19 teams total with four in tier 3; and the mixed division had 27 teams total with 14 in tier 3.
The teams competed in five events: Team Run, Cross-Country Rescue, Rope Bridge, Tire Flip and Physical Team Test. The females won first place overall in all five events, and the males took first in all but Tire Flip, where they came in second.
"I am very pleased with the performance at state," Queen said. "Being a small school, our tier did not have a lot of competition so our goal was to beat every team from every tier. When combined together, the females won every tier, and the males finished second only to tier 1 school Riverside Military Academy."
Sexauer also was happy with his teams' performances.
"I was impressed by their calm demeanor, how they recovered and refocused for each event, their chemistry as a team and their resiliency throughout the day," he said.
As for the teams' strong areas, Queen said the female Tigers "just simply dominated every event all day."
"They decisively beat every team in every event from every tier except for one team on the Team Run," he said. "The four freshmen girls stood out to me. Kayli Hilburn, Ashlynn Waters, Genesse Dacus and Isabelle Lowrey really were huge contributors all day."
The Team Run "stood out for the male team," Queen said.
"They beat the closest team in our tier by a minute and was only 20 seconds behind Riverside," he said. "Usually, the Team Run event is an indicator of a team’s overall strength. After the results came in at the end of the day, I was confident we had a great shot at nationals the following week."
Last Saturday, the three AHS teams were among the 81 teams from 51 schools in 20 states to compete in the National Raider Championships at the Gerald Lawhorn Scouting Base in Molena, where the male and female teams recorded Adairsville's highest finishes ever for two teams in the same year.
"The female team started the year with nine returners from last year’s team so expectations were high this year," Queen said. "As the year progressed, we had some four freshmen and two sophomores earn their way onto the team. Saturday, they were the class of the field, winning first in three of the five events and would have won a fourth event if it wasn’t for a costly penalty on the Rope Bridge event that knocked them to fourth. These girls fought through blood, sweat and tears Saturday, and I have no doubt they gave everything they had. I am so proud of them and so happy they were rewarded for their effort."
The male Tigers "had an incredible performance," he said.
"A very young team that has worked hard training and competing since the end of May peaked at the right time," he said. "Every event was executed to near perfection, and the effort by each Raider on each was tremendous. This team lost seven seniors so to be only two seconds from winning a national championship is a testament to their dedication and hard work."
Competing against 14 other teams, the female Tigers took first place in Cross-County Rescue, Gauntlet and PTT; and fourth place in Team Run and Rope Bridge.
The female Tigers' times came in ahead of second-place Mariner Leadership Academy and third-place North Fort Myers High School, both from Florida.
Nally said winning the state championship "was expected of our team," but nationals was "an all different meet by itself."
"We had not only new members on the team that were unexperienced, but we also had different obstacles come up and meet us while we were competing," she said. "Our performance at nationals was amazing and one of our best."
Beating all the other teams from across the nation was "an indescribable feeling that we felt," Nally said.
"We were elated, not only at winning but knowing that we put in the work and got the outcome we wanted," she said. "It was a very difficult meet, and pressure was on us, but we pushed through and held firm."
Adairsville's male team came in first out of 33 teams in Rope Bridge and Gauntlet; second in Cross-Country Rescue and PTT; and third in Team Run.
Overall, Riverside edged out AHS for first place, and North Paulding High School in Dallas came in third.
Lynch said his team "treated state like it was another meet" because it was "so focused on nationals."
"I’m extremely proud of the way we performed at nationals, given that this year was meant to be a 'rebuild' year for us, losing seven seniors the previous year, but we had done the best any Adairsville male team had ever done at nationals," he said.
Being the runner-up team, however, has "left me with mixed feelings," he said.
"On one hand, I’m proud that this young team had done this well, but on the other, missing the national championship by two seconds on one event was upsetting to us," he said. "However, I’m looking forward to next year because we have a young team hungry for a national championship."
Each team had a stand-out moment at nationals for Queen.
"For the males, it was winning the Rope Bridge," he said. "Riverside has won it for the past five years so it was nice to take that one from them. For the females, it was the PTT. I told them before the event if they ran it under five minutes, they would win the event and maybe the overall championship. They responded with a 4:49 and won the event and the championship."
Sexauer chose the same two events as his teams' outstanding moments.
"Our [male] team had an exceptional Rope Bridge against very good competition, each cadet knowing their job and doing it with speed and consistency," he said. "To see our young men work so efficiently as a team and achieve first place in the most-coveted event at nationals will stick with me forever."
For the female team, the "stage was set for us to claim nationals, but we needed to win that event [PTT]," Sexauer said.
"It was the last event of the day," he said. "Our team was tired but very motivated. To see our Lady Tigers push through that course — the teamwork, conditioning, the focus. They will never forget that feeling of elation when coming across the finish line and hearing that they had claimed first."
Besides Nally, other female team members are seniors Emily Carter and Destiny Adams; juniors Mallory Woodall and Ashleigh Stancil; sophomores Meagan Wimpy, Sadie Johnson and Autumn Hamby; and freshmen Kayli Hilburn, Genesse Dacus, Ashlynn Waters and Isabelle Lowrey.
Lynch's teammates are seniors Jody Sutton, Thomas Anglin and Chandler Nally; juniors James Brunson, Angel Banda and Brendan Luginbuhl; sophomores Brandon Bosdell, Doss Dudley and Landon Cress; and freshmen James Lynch and Mark Brunson.
Walker's team is made up of juniors Andrew Holland and Makayla Thacker; sophomores Jonathan Anglin, Harrison Smith and James Sears; and freshmen Diego Carrillo Garcia, Brayden Casolari, Wesley Boling, Alexis Miller, Kayleigh Rice and Sara Brownlee.