Once again, the PCHS ROTC teams dominated at districts. They were headed to states when COVID-19 brought everything to a sudden halt.
Plant City High School’s ROTC cadets had a year of growth and victories.
Unfortunately, as with countless other high schools, COVID-19 threw a wrench in their plans. Despite having multiple teams place at the Feb. 29 district competition to advance to the state competition on April 18 at George Jenkins, the groups had to wave goodbye to their opportunity to challenge their own skills once more.
The school’s mixed color guard team reigned as back-to-back district champions this year. The dual exhibition girls squad placed third at districts and secured their spot to state as well.
Two other teams also qualified for state. The LET 1 Color Guard placed first and became district champions for the first time in PCHS JROTC history. The mixed unarmed squad placed second in their event at districts to secure their spot to state.
Mixed Color Guard Commander Danny Ramirez, a senior, said the groups received the news the event was officially canceled during their field day. It came as a shock to everyone, he said, and many struggled to accept the fact their year abruptly came to an end.
Even before COVID-19 began to splash across the news, the ROTC cadets faced unexpected challenges. Many former competitors graduated and those left behind had to build teams from the ground up. Ramirez said he had to get three new members for the color guard.
“Our schedule was quick. We had to learn everything in a month,” Ramirez said. “I was feverous about teaching these guys in one period and they learned very quickly. I really think I chose the right people for the team. I tried to teach them that the most important thing is to believe in themselves. In previous competitions we may not have done as well as we wanted to, we may not have taken home any trophies, but I told them we had to trust that the hard work we had put in would pay off. I think we were all nervous at districts, but we had to do our best. And we placed first.”
Lorena Correa, a junior, was the left guard for the team. She said she screamed when the group heard their name called and ran up with the rest of the team to get their trophy as a group.
“If I’m being honest, when I found out states wasn’t happening, I wanted to cry,” Correa said. “This was something that was so important to us and we worked the entire second semester to get ready. I’m going to come back next year and while there’s a lot to live up to with Danny being gone, we are going to do our best to fill his shoes and make him proud.”
Daniela Cortez, a junior who held the state flag for the group, said it was nerve-racking to join a group so focused on precision with a reputation for excelling in competitions. Practice makes perfect, however, so the group spent countless hours getting the routine down to a science in the little time they had.
While Ramirez had to face the fact he would never have the chance to compete again with his group, as he was in his senior year, Cortez said everyone was filled with disappointment.
“Finding out that our competition had been canceled after we worked so hard was really difficult for all of us,” Cortez said. “We had very little time to practice as an entire team, so our commander and Angel (Cardina) poured everything they had into us. We put our best out there and then we couldn’t compete. This was also going to be our first year out there at state as there were some complications last year.”
Cardina, a senior, was on the color guard team last year and though he stepped away from ROTC this year to focus on school, he spent a large portion of his free time training the new recruits on the routine to make sure they were perfect come competition day.
The group would train every day at lunch and Cardina was able to teach them how to listen for the sounds of the subtle movements from their partners to figure out just how to sync.
“I love the ROTC and I like to be precise and perfect at what I do,” Cardina said. “I want to help our people represent our school well and to show the other teams who we are and what we are capable of.”
It was Cardina who helped Ramirez round out his team this year by suggesting Darlene Salgado, a senior, for the right guard spot.
Salgado was originally on a different team. But when color guard had its empty spots, they came to her for help and she agreed.
“I was terrified,” Salgado said. “They have high expectations and I was the last one to join. I came on just two weeks before the competition and so we all had to work really hard to get ready for the competition. I was running over all the little mistakes I had made over and over and then I heard our name called. I remember thinking ‘Oh! We won!’ and we all just got so excited. Then state was cancelled. It was very sad. I’m a senior and now I’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities I never had before. The fact that all of those things were taken away were sad because I’ll never be able to experience them again, but at the same time I got to compete on mixed color guard team and be a part of our victory and that meant so much.”
Jonathon Ponce, a senior, was the commander of the mixed unarmed squad. Correa and Ramirez were also on this team. Ponce said the year was stressful far before COVID-19 arrived. It was his first year commanding and doing drill, and he said he had to learn how to create and lead a team.
He originally walked into a fully formed squad. But when they switched to in-class practices, they lost a majority of members and it was time for Ponce to rally the troops. He said most of the new team members were first-years and the change was evident. However, never one to give up, he decided to dive headfirst into practice.
“I had to teach them everything, even how to march, because they were first-years,” Ponce said. “It was a big change, but I don’t believe that over-practicing or getting upset is an effective way to lead. I never yell or get stressed with my team. We take our time and if someone struggles to learn something, I’ll have someone take them aside and teach them one-on-one. We didn’t have the time to practice that a lot of the other teams did because I had a job and another team member worked, too. A lot of our team also were really involved in school and on other groups so we had to work hard in the time we did have.”
The group placed first before districts, then placed first again at districts to make it to states. It took time and patience, but Ponce said he was so proud of what came from it. As this was his senior year, he said he is both proud of what they were able to accomplish and also disappointed they weren’t able to advance.
When reflecting on his high school experience, he said his only regret was that he hadn’t joined ROTC sooner.
Cortez and Correa were also headed to state with the dual exhibition girls team. They placed third at districts and were in the process of training to give their all when they rolled up to the next competition.
There was an added layer of disappointment with their team this year. Despite the fact that both are juniors, this was going to be their final year competing. Correa said the program is filled with young students who are eager to learn. Instead of focusing on enhancing their own routine, the duo anticipate spending next year focused on training the other cadets on how to compete and perfect their own performances.
Keeping the reputation of PCHS’s team up is more important to both than taking home the glory themselves, so they said they hope to look toward those following behind them from here on out.
The students that come from the ROTC program often reflect that they graduate knowing they became a part of a family while walking the halls at PCHS.
“I think the opportunity it gives them is one of the greatest benefits,” Ramirez said. “Really a lot of people come into the program very shy, and then they start to change and get more confident and learn how to make friends and succeed. Once they get into the program we build an environment of success. They get interested in teams and now we do have a great reputation with our teams and people want to be a part of that. It’s not all just military careers ahead either. Yes, some tend to chose to go into the military or into ROTC in college, but not everyone does. Really, we all bond with each other and I cannot say enough how proud I am of these guys. In the four years I’ve had with this program I’ve learned so much and these guys have taught me so much. Even when you’re leading, you’re learning. It’s a really good program and our school has a great reputation. I’m so thankful I got to be a part of this.”
Despite the rampant disappointment felt by the entire team, the group members said they still believe some positives came from this year and the experiences they’ve learned throughout the process.
“I think the biggest thing we all took away from this is anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” Ramirez said. “Our school is not one of the big ROTC schools. We are not the school that has decades of our teams grabbing trophies for every competition. We have a handful of people to put in teams and practice and compete and we work so hard. If a small little school like us can do it, anything is possible. We have to look back and realize that we were champions and were headed to the next level. Who knows where we could have been had coronavirus not shut our year down?”