WOODSTOCK — The teenagers on Etowah High School’s JROTC Raiders team climbed walls, cleared vaults, crawled and ran to build a new program from scratch and placed 13th at this year’s national championship last month.

Raider competitions involve a series of physical challenges including strength exercises like carrying heavy objects and endurance activities like long runs. The sport is modeled after ROTC Rangers, so many of the events are similar to military training exercises.

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In the very first year, Etowah’s mixed team of male and female cadets ranked in the middle of 22 mixed teams that competed on a national stage. Twelve students participated in the national competition, and teams of 10 compete in each event.

Capt. Caden Kolowich, a junior, said he’s proud of the progress the team has made and is committed to the Raiders.

“I’m 100-percent invested in the Raider team,” he said. “It’s given me a purpose I didn’t know I had.”

Lt. Col. (Ret.) Stephen Bergey, one of the JROTC teachers, started at Etowah in January and started conditioning for Raiders over the summer.

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“We took a bunch of knuckleheads that couldn’t run a mile and turned them into beasts who are running around Towne Lake, running five mile days, and then they come back and they’re working out and climbing walls behind E.T. Booth Middle School. It’s crazy what these guys became in about five months time,” Bergey said. “It’s been awesome.”

Kolowich said the team excelled at strength at nationals, though they usually are better at cardio activities. Next year, team members are hoping to recruit more freshmen, and are looking forward to experienced cadets returning.

Earlier in the season, Etowah JROTC Raiders brought home awards from a team run and a Raider fitness challenge.

“I’m proud of them. When you think about how far they came in such a short amount of time, they were happy, their parents were extremely proud. For me, it was extremely gratifying to see,” Bergey said. “I helped them become a better version of themselves because of the dedication and commitment they were willing to give to the effort. And that’s what JROTC is all about, to make these kids a better, or the best version of themselves they possibly can.”

Shannon is a reporter covering education, city governments, crime, features, religion and other local news. She is a graduate of Young Harris College and currently lives in unincorporated Woodstock.

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