Manatee ROTC teams compete against one another in military-fitness tests

BRADENTON -- They were flipping tires.

Some were building a rope bridge.

The competition was fierce but you wouldn't know it because there was so much fun being had.

About 250 ROTC students from Manatee County's six traditional high schools came out to G.T. Bray Saturday for the Manatee County School's Raider Challenge Meet. Teams put their fitness to the test, competing in five military-style events that included a raider fitness test, one-rope bridge, cross-country rescue, team run and tire flip.

After having already competed in the 5K team run, cross-country rescue, known as litter, and one-rope bridge, freshman Jana Elsenheimer cheering her fellow Braden River students in the tire flip.

She said her favorite event was the run.

"Everyone is always together so they can get encouragement from one another," Jana said.

While Jana, 14, has no current plans

to pursue a military career, she does aspire to move up in the ranks in ROTC.

"This is my first year," Jana said. "I wanted to become more athletic and I wanted to join something that would teach me leadership."

Parents were visible throughout the park, encouraging students.

Maria Eicher's son graduated Palmetto High School last year after being involved all four years with ROTC. It had such an impact that Eicher still volunteers her time. "I enjoy being around these kids," Eicher said. "They just need a little motivation."

Eicher's shouts of encouragement could be heard as the Palmetto team competed in the cross-country rescue.

"That's what we are her for, support the parents, so they can motivate," she said.

Eischer's son also attended the event Saturday. ROTC helped him earn a scholarship to college.

"He's here to support his friends," Maria Eischer said.

Col. John Hetherington, senior Army instructor at Southeast High School, was enjoying watching his students compete.

"What's really great about this is we get all the county schools together," Hetherington said. "It's just a great day and G.T. Bray is a great location for it."

Hetherington, like all the instructors, had more than 20 years of service in active duty.

Nearby, James Watnes, assistant instructor at Bayshore High School, stood with Marine recruiters as he proudly watched his cadets.

"This is the first competition in the county, so they are learning what their strengths and weaknesses are," Watnes said, adding that the event will prepare them for the district meet.

"This is for bragging rights and gives them a way to measure their skills," he said.

Lorenzo Castro, a sophomore at Palmetto High School, was all smiles despite the sweat and dirt from just having competed in the cross-country rescue.

"It's a big team effort; you have to set up a lot of things together," he said.

The 15-year-old said he plans to join the Army or Marines one day, but not before going on to college and ROTC, so he an enter the service as an officer.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.