ELIZABETHTOWN — Bladen County is home to the nation’s top drill team, and for the first time in history, the title is claimed by a high school and not a college or university.
In March, Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy traveled to Jacksonville, Fla., to participate in the General John J. Pershing Memorial Drill Competition, held at the Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex. The academy — only its fourth year of existence — competed against 23 other units from around the country and was one of only two Blackjack (high school) units. All other units were from universities like Clemson, Appalachian State, Kansas State, Bowling Green State, and four-time consecutive reigning champion Toledo (Ohio) State.
The academy’s win marks the first time in the history of the competition — which has been going on for more than 100 years — that a high school team earned the national title.
“The whole focus of the team was to make a respectable showing,” said Lt. Col. Carl Lloyd, commander of cadets at Paul R. Brown. “They marched their best meet of the year that day. It is a double-edged sword with the colleges. Schools like Clemson, Appalachian State and Toledo come in as previous national champions. That is daunting for some kids from Elizabethtown.
“I did not tell them they were competing against college students,” he added. “They figured it out that morning. Practicing in the same parking lots the day before, teams discreetly check each other out. They knew by the end of the day who the teams to beat were. When they would see a team do something really great during practice, they were impressed and would look at me in awe. I would ask them, ‘Can we beat them?’ All would say, ‘Yes, but we have to be on our game.’ When they found out they were competing against colleges, I had to remind them of what they said before they found out they were college students.
“The competition was tough, because you are going up against the best drillers on that college’s campus,” said Lloyd. “You are also talking about dedicated and focused young men and women who will soon become officers in our nation’s military.”
The meet consisted of seven events scored by representatives from the Naval Air Station Jacksonville. In Regulation events, which included Regulation Platoon and Regulation Squad Armed, the team was required to commit a sequence to memory and execute the movements in a specific order. Exhibition events — Exhibition Platoon Armed, Exhibition Squad Armed, Exhibition Duet, and Exhibition Individual — required teams to make up their own routines, which were judged on creativity, precision, and level of difficulty. The Color Guard competition rounded out the events.
The John L. Foye Drill Team from Paul R. Brown brought home several awards. The charter school’s drill team — in addition to winning the overall title — won second place in Color Guard, commanded by Iyanna McAllister. The group also won second place in Regulation Squad Armed under the command of Maria Baza. Cadet Elijah Hayes took third place in Exhibition Individual. Points from all events were used to determine the overall winner.
The team members didn’t know they had won, however, until two months later.
“At the end of the meet, they were told they did not win,” Lloyd explained. “They were distraught, because they knew they had marched a great meet. The consolation was when some of the college teams came to them after and told them they thought that they had won and to keep up the good work. It took a little of the sting out.
“When I went to get the score sheets, I noticed that we had an extremely high score overall. I assumed that we must have just missed out on first or second runner up,” he added. “When I was told that we were last out of the schools that were eligible to win, I knew something was wrong. I asked them to check the scores. I felt that we had won, but did not tell the kids, because I did not want them to be disappointed again.
“It was not until we were home weeks later that the National Society sent emails to all the units letting them know that there had been a mistake. I did not tell the cadets. On May 19, the Society sent representatives to present the trophy to the cadets during the Academy’s Armed Forces Day Parade. For the cadets, it was a great way to close out the year. For the two seniors, it was special. They had been there since day one. It made all the time and hard work worth it. They get to leave a legacy.”
For the school, the win is monumental, according to Lloyd.
“Any time you win Nationals, it makes you a part of something special. You join a select fraternity,” he commented. “Beating great schools like Clemson gives you a shot in the arm. It lets you know that you can compete with anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
He added, “For the school, it’s huge, because little Paul R. Brown is now known for its drill team. It has given the cadets motivation to start getting ready for next year. They now know all those college students are gunning for them.”
On June 5, the Elizabethtown Town Council presented a resolution to the drill team outlining “the town’s pride of the win in the Pershing Rifles Championship” and wishing “the John L. Foye Drill Team continued success in future competitions.”
“Every time I see them, they do an impressive job,” said Mayor Sylvia Campbell. “I’ve really never seen anything like it.”
“They performed recently at the Rotary Club’s Memorial Day celebration, and you should have seen them,” Councilman Ricky Leinwand commented. “They were amazing. We’re very proud of them.”
Founded in 2013 as North Carolina’s first military charter school, Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy utilizes a four-pillar system of academics, character, discipline and athletics. The 146 cadets at the institution compete in about 10 drill competitions each year.
The Pershing Rifles is a military fraternal organization established as a drill team in 1894 and nationally in 1928. It is the oldest continuously operating U.S. college organization dedicated to military drill. The mission of the National Society of Pershing Rifles, which hosts the annual competition, is to aid in the development of officers and to further the mission of the army, navy, and air force.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.