As it's done with everything else, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on Adairsville High's JROTC Raiders program this year.
But despite the obstacles it presented, the cadets didn't let it stop them from having another successful year.
AHS's three Raider teams competed in six competitions — Adairsville High on Sept. 12, North Paulding High on Sept. 19, Cartersville High on Sept. 26, South Paulding High on Oct. 17, Cass High on Oct. 24 and Hiram High on Nov. 7 — during their 2020 season, but the male and female teams were unable to officially defend their state titles due to the state competition being canceled and not rescheduled because of the virus.
"I’m just disappointed for them because they are so committed to the Raiders program, and they put so much work into it," Army instructor 1st Sgt. Jerry Queen said. "We, as instructors, made every effort to make this season as normal as possible for the kids."
But the Hiram meet, which featured 32 of the top teams in Georgia, served as an unofficial state competition run by JROTC instructors, and though it was about a third of the normal size of the official state meet, Queen said he thinks the "best teams currently competing were there."
"COVID-19 put a damper on most of the 257 JROTC programs in Georgia," he said. "Many schools were unable to have a season due to school systems being on digital learning and limited extracurricular involvement. I would say that most competitions were about a third of the size of last year. Most of us instructors decided we were going to do as much as we could to make sure the kids had as normal of a Raider season as possible."
At least the two state champs will be able to attempt to remain national champions, though they'll have to wait a little longer since the national competition was moved from early November to late February.
The Lady Tigers, commanded by senior Meagan Wimpy and junior Kayli Hilburn, won all six competitions this season, including taking first place in 31 of the 32 events they entered.
"The female team dominated their competition this year and even had better times than a lot of the mixed teams that were competing," Queen said, calling their season "phenomenal." "They are so focused and dedicated to winning. To see their effort every week is inspiring. They are demanding of each other during practice and at competitions."
Wimpy, 17, said she believed her team "performed extremely well, given the circumstances of the pandemic."
"From the beginning of summer, we were only allowed to host captains' practices and had to work with social distancing guidelines, which is very difficult when it is a team-based sport," she said. "Throughout the season, we would have people quarantined right before a Raider meet, and our whole plan for many events would have to change. Even with these challenges, my team and I learned to improvise this season and still performed at a high level of intensity."
Hilburn, also 17, agreed.
"My team’s performance was near perfection," she said. "Of course, we had minor issues, but for having to deal with COVID, we did phenomenally."
Queen said the 13 team members have "so much pride" in their performances, regardless of the competition they face.
"Even when they are at competing at events with little competition, their effort is still like it’s a must-win in every event," he said. "I was most impressed with some of the tire flips they had to do this year. There were two competitions where half of the female teams could not make it to the finish line flipping the tire because of the weight. These girls refuse to fail."
Flipping a 1,000-pound tire at the Cartersville meet was the "highlight of this season" for Wimpy.
"Only two female teams finished the event because of the weight, one of them being us, and we beat the other team by a 10-minute difference," she said.
Another challenge that was the high point for Hilburn was the 96-foot rope bridge "that spanned over a cold, waist-deep river."
"It took a lot of courage for the girls to cross at that distance while 15 feet above the water," she said. "It was very exciting, and I’m very proud of them for it."
That determination to succeed is evident in the fact that the Lady Tigers missed first place in only one event the entire season — the obstacle course at Hiram.
"Home teams have a huge advantage on their own obstacle course," Queen said. "We have never lost at our obstacle course because we train on it all the time."
Queen also said the female team has "never" had a streak of winning individual events like that in one season before that he could remember.
"This is a really good team, but to be fair, a lot of the highly competitive teams over the past few years were unable to field a female team this year due to COVID," he said.
Making up the rest of the Lady Tigers are seniors Taylor Phillips and Sayde Johnson; juniors Ashlynn Waters, Isabelle Lowrey, Autumn Giddens and Melody Cress; sophomores Giorgia Conduff and Lanie Findley; and freshmen Maggie Lynch, Leia McDougle and Reese Leighly.
The male team, led by senior Brandon Bosdell, won four out of six competitions — North Paulding, Cartersville, South Paulding and Cass — and placed second at Adairsville and third at Hiram this year.
The 14-member team "dealt with multiple injuries and quarantines throughout the season" and never had the same team competing in consecutive weeks, Queen said.
"It was really crazy," he said. "We would get notified on Thursday or Friday that someone was quarantined. We would have to retrain someone on Friday evening or adjust the plan walking up to an event on Saturday morning. We never had the same team in consecutive weeks. In saying all of that, I believe we handled those issues better than other schools. It truly was a next-man-up mentality."
Bosdell, 17, thought his team members did well this season under the circumstances.
"The team is full of capable individuals who did their best, despite COVID-19 preventing everyone from competing together at every meet," he said, noting the highlight for him was "the meets we won, despite not having the same team multiple weeks in a row due to COVID-19."
Queen said the team had "two costly mistakes at Hiram which they was unable to overcome."
"Their times were good enough to win, but a mistake on the rope bridge moved them from first to fifth, and a penalty on the Raider Fitness Challenge moved them from second to fourth," he said, noting the two teams that beat them were Benedictine Military School and Georgia Military College.
The male Raiders' best competition was Cass, Queen said.
"The team was missing three of their top five Raiders and still beat some good teams handily," he said. "The Cross Country Rescue event was over a mile in distance, and they had to carry a 150-pound litter and four 35-pound rucksacks and won the event. They also had their best Rope Bridge time of the year with a time 1:02."
Besides Bosdell, other team members are seniors Doss Dudley, Westin Porter, Landen Cress, Jonathan Anglin and Jamison Dickhaus; juniors Mark Brunson, James Lynch, Elias Leighly, Wesley Boling, Brice Meadows, Brayden Casolari and Diego Carrillo Garcia; and freshman Bradley Kuykendall.
As good as the Raiders are on the competition field, they're just as good with their schoolwork, according to Queen.
"These girls are amazing, not only as athletes but also in the classroom," he said. "The team has a combined 3.89 GPA. The male team also excels in the classroom, with a combined GPA of 3.52. These kids' commitment to winning is special, and every single one of them is of the highest character."
The 15-member mixed team, a developmental squad led by senior Mele Tello and junior Tyler Stensvold, "always amazes me," Queen said.
"Understand that many schools only have a mixed team or have a mixed team and a male team so they put their best males and females on that team," he said. "Our mixed team is a developmental team so they are usually young and inexperienced. In a few meets this year, these kids gave some good teams a run for their money."
Stensvold, 16, said his team "did a great job" this season.
"They gave it their all at every competition, and I’m proud of all of them," he said.
The pinnacle of the season for Stensvold was winning the area championship at the Cass competition.
"We are a young team with a lot of inexperience so to win that was a testament to our hard work," he said.
Other members besides the two commanders are juniors Shawn Pinnow, Sarah Brownlee, Kayleigh Rice and Jordan Jones; sophomores D'Andre Ross, Joshua Holland and Parker Czyz; and freshmen Brycen Newberry, Cole Laughhunn, Allyson Thacker, Baleigh Key, Rylee Mayfield and Elizabeth Ogles.
Senior Army instructor Maj. David Sexauer said his Raiders' season was a "real success."
"Our cadets followed COVID-19 protocols and school guidance and continued to train hard throughout the season," he said. "Our Raiders never let the cancellations, changes or restrictions associated with the pandemic define them. The season, in many ways, felt like the same drive to excellence from years past. We remain very proud of their accomplishments and look forward to turning them loose at nationals next February."
With their season behind them, the three teams turn their attention to their next big goal, the National Raider Championships at the Gerald Lawhorn Scouting Base in Molena Feb. 27, where the male and female teams are hoping for a repeat.
"I think we have a great chance, but I have no idea what the competition looks like out of state," Queen said. "We know where we need to be on our 5K run times and our litter team times to be competitive at nationals so our challenge is going to be to maintain those times going into January and February."
The Lady Tigers' commanders believe they have a good shot at remaining the national champions if they stay the course on their training.
"Our team definitely has a great chance of winning our national title back in February, even with the time gap, as long as we stay consistent with our workouts," Wimpy said.
"I believe my team’s chance at nationals in February is incredibly high," Hilburn said. "While we have a lot of waiting time, we are still practicing and pushing ourselves."
Bosdell said he thinks his team has a "good chance" of winning nationals "as long as the males consistently push themselves over the break."
And Stensvold said his goal for his team is to at least place in the Top 10 at nationals.
"I think our chances in February are pretty good," he said. "We need to improve our run times before February if we want to have a better showing than last year."