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Girls join CHS fitness team -- and win

Long-standing gender barrier broken with addition of females to Junior ROTC

Published: March 31, 2012   
Sgt. Maj. R.S. Jernig an (right) observes as girls on the Catholic High School fitness team do their push-ups during an early morning workout. Female students were able to join CHS' Junior ROTC for the first time in this school year.

On March 17, members of Catholic High School's physical fitness team took first place at a competition held in Franklinton, La.

Winning is not unusual for CHS's physical fitness team, a part of the school's Marine Corps Junior ROTC program. The team won both the 2010 and 2011 national championships, held in San Diego.

However, there was one difference with the team in Franklinton -- all the members were female.

This year, for the first time, the all-male school invited female students from its sister school, Mount St. Mary Academy, to join its JROTC program, including its rifle, drill and physical fitness teams.

"The girls are doing extremely well," said Sgt. Maj. R.S. Jernigan, JROTC instructor at Catholic and one of the physical fitness team's coaches.

Latin teacher Tom Handloser also coaches the team.

"We had a lot of girls asking. They had brothers on the team and getting scholarships," Jernigan said. "It just seemed to fit. It's our sister school."

Mount sophomore Molly Sampson, 15, decided to join based on her brother's experience.

"My brother had been in it his four years. I thought it would be fun to try," Sampson said. "It's great. It's hard, but I expected it to be difficult."

Jernigan gave a presentation at MSM at the beginning of the school year, and 20 Mount students joined JROTC. The physical fitness team has 10 female members, three seniors and seven sophomores. The drill team also has 10 Mount students, and four girls are on the rifle team.

"It's a big thing, an opportunity for the girls," he said.

Having female members will also help the team overall at competitions where teams are expected to be coed. At a competition in Austin, Texas, last year, Catholic was penalized for not having girls on the team, even though the school is all-male.

"It's just a win-win situation for everybody," Jernigan said.

To help with the new members, Jernigan recruited Rebecca McWilliams, a French teacher at CHS and a MSM alumna, to serve as the female adviser and chaperone.

"She was glad to do it, and the girls relate to her real well," Jernigan said.

Jernigan, who started teaching after he retired from the Marine Corps in 1999, is in his fourth year at CHS.

"The kids we have in the program are good kids. The boys love having them in the program. It's no extra work -- we treat them all the same," Jernigan said.

That includes giving the girls nicknames, like "Karate Kid" and "Beli" (short for "believe"), which the students also use. It helps the team to bond, Jernigan said.

CHS senior Warren Franzetti said he was excited about girls joining the team because friends at MSM had asked him about it in the past.

"It's something different. We've had the team a while -- they haven't had the chance," said Franzetti, one of the captains of the boys' fitness team. His brother, Michael, is the other captain.

JROTC at CHS started in 1967, which makes it the third oldest JROTC in the nation and the oldest in the state.

There are 148 students in Catholic's JROTC, which Jernigan said is a big unit, especially coming from smaller schools. With the high percentage of involvement, "we must be doing something right," he said.

The physical fitness team is made up of both JROTC cadets and other Catholic students. Of the 100 people on the team right now, about 75 percent are JROTC and the rest are CHS students, Jernigan said.

"There are tryouts to go to competition, but anyone can join (the team)," said Bridget Lee, 17, Mount senior and captain of the girls' fitness team.

After graduation Lee will attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Although anyone can join, being a member of the team requires discipline and determination. Practice for the physical fitness team, also known as "early morning workout with Sergeant Major," starts at 6:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Practice ends by 7:15 to give the girls time to get to school.

When CHS junior Taylor Adams, 17, heard MSM students were joining, he thought it was a good idea.

"I didn't see why we wouldn't have a girls' fitness team," said Adams, a member of the team for three years.

Besides practice starting 30 minutes earlier, Adams said the only difference he's noticed is "Sergeant Major pushes us even more."

He has been impressed by the performance of the new team members.

"They can actually do more push-ups and pull-ups than some of the guys on the fitness team," Adams said.

In addition to the morning workouts, the boys on the team also practice at lunch time. Closer to nationals, the team will add after-school practices, including a hill workout.

For competitions, a team consists of six members. Each member performs a series of exercises: two minutes of sit-ups, two minutes of pushups, a standing long jump, two minutes of pull-ups, and a 300-yard shuttle run, with three-minute rests between each exercise.

Participants earn points based on their performance. For example, an individual who completes 30 pull-ups in two minutes will get 100 points for his or her team.

Some competitions separate teams into male and female divisions, but others do not.

When the girls participated in their first competition, held Feb. 4 in New Orleans, the female team came in second place, behind only the Catholic boys' team. The girls' team beat out all the other male and female teams.

When the girls' team placed first in Franklinton, they again beat out male and female teams.

"We have them competing against boys and girls to get their confidence up. I think it's working," Jernigan said.

Both physical fitness teams have been busy this spring. While the girls' team was in Franklinton, the top boys' team competed in El Paso, Texas, and won first place.

On April 28 Catholic High will host a major statewide competition with approximately 18 public and private schools participating. This will be the third year for CHS to host the event.

"I run it just like nationals," Jernigan said.

In addition to state and regional events, the team will focus on preparing for the national championship in San Diego, to be held May 18-19. Jernigan said the students like to call it their "threepeat year."

But even before going to nationals, Jernigan expects female participation on the team will grow next year. After the girls' team got the second-place trophy, "they were pretty stoked," he said.

"The more we do, the more we go, the more competitions we win, the more will want to participate," he said.


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