BRADENTON -- "This is our Super Bowl."
The words reverberated around the high school Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corp. this week at Bayshore, Braden River, Manatee and Palmetto high schools.
Retired Col. James Bradin, commander of Braden River's JROTC, said it.
Manatee senior 2nd Lt. Matthew Hyatt said it.
So did Palmetto retired Chief Warrant Officer John Edmond.
Bayshore High School junior company commander Liza Vazquez did, too.
The 2013 Florida State Raider Competition is Saturday at Braden River and 40 of the best 12-cadet teams from 26 schools around Florida will be there.
Manatee has three: male, female and mixed.
Palmetto has two: male and mixed.
Bayshore has one: female.
"Like other athletes who go to state championships, this is ours -- our Super Bowl," Palmetto's Edmond said. "From the beginning I preach hard work pays off and it did."
Braden River did not qualify a team, yet it will host this prestigious competition thanks to the collaboration of Manatee Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Thomas Zoch and Braden River Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Matt Collis.
The Florida State Raider Competition is usually at the Flaming Arrow Scout Reservation at Lake Wales, but it was canceled in October by government budget cuts.
But Zoch, with an assist from Collis, saved the day.
"I know how hard our cadets work to get ready to compete in the Raider competition and did not want them to be short-changed," Zoch said.
So they moved the event to Braden River, which is closer to Interstate 75 and has more land for events.
Each team pays a $100 entry fee.
"The venue here is much better for the spectator and the athlete," Bradin said. "It's an open campus compared to the Boy Scout camp where it's typically run. Here you can see pretty much every event."
Bayshore's Lt. Col. (Ret.) Tony Vega is grateful to his Raider counterparts at Manatee and Braden River.
"My hat's off to them for doing this," he said. "They really stepped up to bat for the kids."
Southeast's JROTC is helping score the meet.
It is a competition among the best of the best and that means everything to the cadets.
Manatee has 335 in its JROTC program; Palmetto, 320; and Bayshore, 225.
The events are:
5K team run.
Cross country rescue.
Each requires physical fitness, technical skill and mental acuity.
For instance, the cross country rescue involves a written test and partners wearing heavy rucksacks while carrying a weighted litter over a 1-mile obstacle course.
"You train from day one of your freshman year for this," Manatee's Wyatt said.
"People will be practicing on the field -- the band, lacrosse -- and they'll see us running around and they don't know how hard it really is," said Manatee freshman Pvt. Tanner Smith.
"The opportunity to be on top with the best is motivating," Bayshore's Vazquez said.
It means a lot to Braden River sophomore Sgt. Jared Longabach, even though the future Raider team commander will be a spectator.
"We get to see what other teams are doing and learn what we can improve on for next year," he said.
Having it practically in their backyard has several advantages for our county's cadets.
"It's nice not having to get up at 3 a.m. and drive to the meet," Manatee's Hyatt said.
Being able to have family there, cheering them on means a lot, as well.
"More family means more support," said Manatee junior Capt. Connor Powers.
It also adds incentive.
Palmetto Raider Pvt. Kole Nasziger's sisters Megan and Abby are their brother's biggest fans, but they're demanding, too.
Even for 5-year-olds.
"They always ask, 'Did you guys win? Did you run the fastest? Let me see your trophy,'" Nasziger said. "I got a ribbon at a meet in Boca Ciega and they were wearing it more than I was."
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.