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Braden River JROTC instructor to retire after building up the program

Alexander Figueroa will lead the Bradenton school's team into one more state tournament before retiring.

JROTC instructor Alexander Figueroa says his 13 years with Braden River High School has been a blessing.
JROTC instructor Alexander Figueroa says his 13 years with Braden River High School has been a blessing.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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The Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Drill Team State Championship mostly has been a joyous occasion for Alexander Figueroa.

After 13 years serving as a JROTC instructor at Braden River High School, this year's state championship on April 15 will be bittersweet for the longtime instructor.

Figueroa will retire in June from both his teaching duties and leading the drill team. 

“It’s going to be fun because I call it the last dance,” said Figueroa, who has decided to go into ministry work. “It’s going to be bittersweet.”

From the time the drill team meets for the first time in October to when the team competes at the state championship in April, Figueroa said it’s a complete transformation as students embrace their roles as leaders and freshmen learn the basics.

“On competition day, I’m just like a proud papa watching them do what they’ve been practicing all week,” Figueroa said. “I always tell them, ‘It’s showtime, but when you go out there it’s no different than how you practice during the week. Just go showcase what you’ve worked on.’ It all comes together like a ballet.”

This year’s state championship also will be bittersweet for the students as they know it’s their final competition with Figueroa. 

Sophomore AJ Peters, junior Giovanni Sarnuto, JROTC instructor Alexander Figueroa, junior Adanna Wharton, senior Julianna Chupp and sophomore Tiffany Rock are hopeful for another state championship.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Julianna Chupp, a senior, said Figueroa has changed her mindset on winning. Rather than focusing on the other teams she’s competing against, she’s focused on herself and her team. 

“He always tells us we’re not competing against anyone except for ourselves,” Chupp said. “You’re not thinking about how good the other schools are going to be, you’re thinking about how good you are going to be and how you are going to outdo yourself. You’re always going to be working on improving yourself.”

Figueroa sees his years teaching as a service to the school, the community and the students he has helped turn into leaders. 

“I want to share my experience with the kids in a community where I can make a difference to impact future generations,” Figueroa said. “Teaching high school kids was not on my radar, but there’s a higher power that called me here. I’m always obedient to that.”

Since 2008, the female and male drill teams have won a category state championship title almost every year, always building upon the drill team’s legacy. 

“It’s an honor to be a part of something that the kids develop and establish their legacy,” Figueroa said. “I’m just a small piece of it. The reality is the kids do all the work. I just got to teach, coach and guide them to being the great champions they are.”

Figueroa said a key to the drill team’s legacy as state champions is building leaders the moment they join the program as freshmen and continuing their development through their senior year.

“We embrace every student at different levels to where they teach, coach and mentor one another, and they learn together,” he said. “We we establish that down at the lowest level. A freshman could say, ‘I was a state champion.’ It starts from there. The freshmen class has the future leaders of the team.”

Junior Giovanni Sarnuto said an important lesson he’s learned from Figueroa is how to help build great leaders. Figueroa taught his students to see if potential leaders are the answer to three questions: Does the leader care? Can the leader help? Can students trust them?

“I have taken this to heart because it’s such a great way to lead,” Sarnuto said. “Once you show you care for the people you’re leading, they’ll respect you. It’s that mutual respect that makes the team so much stronger.”

Chupp said Figueroa is like “the fun uncle” of the JROTC family. 

“He’s kind of a wackadoo, but he’s serious when he needs to be. He makes practice fun. He’s the best of the best. I don’t think anybody can ever top Sergeant Major when it comes to coaching us.”

Students recalled when someone left a small yellow bike leaning against the building where the JROTC program has its classes. Before they knew it, Figueroa was riding around in circles on the bike. 

Chupp said she’ll always remember when Figueroa stayed in contact with the drill team through Zoom when students were learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. She remembered him making a heart with his arms above his head. 

“Every time he does it, it’s so adorable,” Chupp said. “I have so many pictures of him doing it. It just shows he cares.”

Although Sarnuto was hoping Figueroa would be the drill team instructor for his senior year, he said Figueroa has ingrained in the students high standards that won’t change in the future. 

“Despite him not being there, we’ll be prepared,” Sarnuto said. 

Junior Adanna Wharton said Figueroa has led by example, teaching students to not only care about winning but also care about students, their futures and the importance of building a family within the team. 

“I know, for sure, that next year, we’re going to have more people stepping up to fill in the spots from everyone who is leaving,” Wharton said. “It’s more of an opportunity than something that we’re missing. I try to think of it that way because there’s some things we can help improve. I think next year is going to be a good year.”



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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