SUN CITY — T.J. Yonkauske could feel the intense burn as he and his teammates ran along a grass path hauling a 100-pound stretcher for a mile. One team member toted a 30-pound ruck sack.
“You have to push yourself through it,” the Newsome High School junior said, explaining the experience of participating in a Raider Challenge tournament. He and hundreds of other students from across the region, all members of the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, or JROTC, participated in a physically and mentally challenging day at the South County Career Center (SCCC) in southernmost Hillsborough County last week. The challenge included a humvee pull, rope bridge course, the “litter carry” involving the stretcher and more.
“We have some real powerhouse schools in our region for this event, including Newsome and Alonso, who always go to state (competition),” said retired Maj. Rick Coles, who heads the JROTC program at the career center, an alternative school for students who faced challenges in regular public schools. Thirty-three percent of the students at his school participate in the program, which gives them credit for physical fitness while teaching them leadership skills, team work and good citizenship.
Schools in eastern Hillsborough County had a great day, coming in first in several events. Newsome’s all-male team took first in the team run, East Bay took first for its all-male humvee pull and Plant City took first in the male-female category. In the sandbag relay, Newsome took first for the all-male team and Armwood in Seffner took first for its mixed team.
Retired Col. Lonnie Vona, who heads Newsome’s program, said it is the athletes in JROTC that turn out for the Raider Challenge. Watching the students pull themselves hand-over-hand across a rope bridge, Vona explained that this event can either make or break a team. With a lot of moving parts, everyone must time their job correctly to find success.
“You’re only as good as the slowest team member,” he said.
Armando Diaz is a junior at the career center and is participating in his second Raider Challenge.
“We workout every day to prepare for this,” Diaz said, as he headed to the humvee pull. “I feel like when I go in the Army, I’ll have a jump on things, having been through this program.”
The Lennard High team from Ruskin works out every week, as well, but its members didn’t know about the humvee pull, which presented a real challenge.
“We weren’t expecting this,” said junior Bradley Granado. “Since we didn’t train for it, it was tough,” but fun, nevertheless, he said.
Granado, attending his first Raider Challenge, said the JROTC program is helping him become physically fit while advancing his leadership skills.
For some, the program gives them direction and teaches them their own self-worth. Such is the case for Brianna Bodden, a junior at the South County Career Center who said she had some disciplinary problems in the past.
“I actually want to go in the Air Force and I need to improve my body strength and my leadership skills,” Bodden said. “I used to be a lot heavier and had bad discipline problems,” she said.
“A lot of it is about brotherhood and camaraderie,” said Tyler Peterson, a junior at Newsome in his third year in JROTC. “You get to have a lot of fun and meet a lot of new people you might not otherwise know.”