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Ultimate Challenge

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  • | 5:00 a.m. December 5, 2013
Courtesy photo. The SMA Raiders female team tied for first place at this year’s district meet, while the male team finished third.
Courtesy photo. The SMA Raiders female team tied for first place at this year’s district meet, while the male team finished third.
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Alexis Jenkins’ first day of cross-country practice at Sarasota Military Academy was unlike any she had experienced before.

After transferring from Venice High, the then sophomore knew she wanted to get involved in athletics at her new school, particularly cross-country.

Jenkins joined the SMA Raiders team and attended her first practice shortly thereafter.

She enjoyed running with the team; and she assumed the pushups and sit-ups were just part of the team’s conditioning program.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, when Jenkins was first introduced to rucksacks and given a physical-fitness test, that she realized the Raiders were more than just a cross-country team.

In fact, they weren’t a cross-country team at all.

“I knew it was a military school, so I just thought they called their cross-country team ‘Raiders,’” Jenkins says. “I definitely signed up for more than I thought I was.”

Three years later, the SMA senior is grateful for that initial mishap.

Ever since then, Jenkins has been a member of the school’s female Raiders team. The Raiders team is an active outdoor adventure and leadership team that is typically found in high schools with JROTC programs.

SMA has both male and female Raiders teams. Each team is made up of 12 members, with the 10 best athletes in each event participating in the actual competition.

Each competition is comprised of five timed events: a rope bridge, a sandbag carry, which is similar to a relay race, a 5K run, a one-mile cross-country rescue run and an HMMWV pull. Each event has specific rules, restrictions and obstacles, which the athletes must navigate through.

“Raiders is a highly physical and challenging sport,” Jenkins says. “It challenges your physical capabilities and your mental capabilities, as well.”

SMA sophomore Brandon Miller agrees.

“It teaches you how to develop leadership skills,” Miller says. “It’s like a brotherhood. You bond with your team members more than you normally would in other sports.”

The Raiders run every morning before school and also practice Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays after school. The team competed in five competitions earlier this year in preparation for the district, state and national competitions.

“We’re very close-knit,” Miller says. “In the tougher competitions, you really need to rely on your other teammates. You need them as brothers.”

Jenkins agrees.

“It’s definitely one-of-a-kind,” Jenkins says. “We’re incredibly close. When you can’t go on anymore, your friends are there to help you do the impossible.”

Recently, the team competed at the national competition in Molena, Ga. It was the Raiders’ second trip to the national competition. Similar to other competitions, the team competed in five events, only this time the events were harder physically. In addition, the teams also tackled two new challenges: the gauntlet, a two-mile rucksack run, and a PTT, which was like a giant obstacle course. The additional events replaced the sandbag carry and the HMMWV pull.

The female team tied for first place, while the male team finished eighth overall. The teams competed against 80 other teams from 40 schools across the nation.

“It was humbling, in a way,” Jenkins says. “I’m proud of what we did. We left everything on the field that day. It’s not fun losing, but you need those experiences to make you levelheaded. It was a good last experience.”

On Dec. 14, the Raiders will compete in their final competition of the season at the Gulf Coast All-Star Raider Challenge. The competition, which will begin at 8 a.m. at Braden River High, will serve as a proxy state championship because the actual Florida state meet was canceled due to the government shutdown.

All of the teams that would have normally qualified for the state championship meet have been invited; as of press time more than 43 teams from across the state were scheduled to participate.

The Raiders female team will seek to defend its state championship — its has won the title each of the past five years — while the male team wants to reclaim the state championship. The male team had won the title four consecutive years before finishing third last year.

The male team will face its toughest test against Manatee, while the female team is expected to compete against Palmetto and Boca Ciega for top honors. Historically, the female team’s toughest competition has come from Braden River, but the Pirates won’t be competing in this year’s state championship.

“It’s been a hard year for us,” says retired Master Sgt. John Browning, who serves as the Raiders head coach. “Overall, with the performances we’ve had, we can’t be happier. They did leaps and bounds better at nationals this year than they did last year.

“Whenever they’ve been faced with adversity, they’ve been very resilient,” Browning said. “We expect both teams to perform in the same manner that they have in the past.”

Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].