The Navy League of the United States has named Central High School's JROTC as the most outstanding in the nation.
Oh, and this isn't the first time. The unit placed first in 2006 and second in 2005, 2008 and 2009.
The program is only 10 years old and was started by Lt. Col. Michael Ralph and Chief Wendell Dey. It grew rapidly and now thrives with 285 members, about one out of every six Central students.
Winning the top unit in the nation was particularly difficult this year, as students and Ralph dealt with a deep loss. "One of our instructors had passed away," said senior and regimental commander Carly Territo, 18, referring to Dey, who recently died after a long illness. "He was like a father figure to a lot of the cadets."
Ralph is very proud of his students and this latest honor. "It means the world to us," he said. "The legacy and the pressure is to keep the program successful. They just keep working hard and obviously, it works."
The Central unit was submitted to the Navy League by Cmdr. Dirk Hebert, who oversees most of the Florida Navy JROTC units, about 58 of them.
"This program is about citizenship and the development of that," Hebert said. "In Florida, I don't have another unit that's even close. Interestingly, those guys improve every year."
Hebert said that a JROTC goal is to attract a cross section of a school. "It's just amazing what they have done there," he said. "I'm just proud of Central. They're head and shoulders above everything everywhere."
The league looks at community service, leadership, athletics, academics, competition and overall tempo. Central has put in more than 10,000 hours of community service over the past year. Cadets collected 1,700 of it in one weekend when they organized and distributed about 25,000 toys in the Toys for Tots program.
Fourteen cadets hold offices in organizations outside JROTC at Central, in student government, as class officers and as officers in the National Honor Society. Fourteen cadets have served as captains on 20 of Central's varsity athletic teams.
Academically, in the Class of 2010, 16 cadets have gathered $1.8 million in scholarship offers. Four cadets are in the top 10 of the graduating class of 387 students.
The JROTC hallways are lined with trophies, plaques and banners that attest to the unit's competition abilities. Over the past few years, the unit has had Florida first place teams in personnel inspection, unarmed exhibition drills, color guard, pushups, the 100-meter relay and the 200-meter relay. They have achieved top three status in overall drill, overall athletics, armed exhibition drill, marksmanship and orienteering.
Carly, who is about to graduate, and next year's regiment executive officer (second in command), junior Erica Aguiar, 17, had similar reasons for joining the unit when they started high school.
Carly had two brothers go through and, besides that, said she joined "to be part of a club and to have a place in high school where I could come."
Erica joined because her sister advised her to do so. She is glad she did. "Everything about it is inviting," she said. "It's just so welcoming here."
As the unit leader, the national honor was important to Carly. "It meant like everything," she said. "ROTC was a huge part of my life in high school."
Erica is left with a tough act to follow. "There's never been a unit to get it two years in a row, and it's made Dan and me hungry," she said. (Dan Wilson-Simpson will be next year's regiment commander.) The outgoing regiment executive officer (second in command) is graduating senior Phylicia Irons.
Central High principal Joe Clifford joined the school during this school year, but he is familiar with the program, which he supports. His own daughter, Molly Clifford, was a JROTC student. He seems as proud as the others for the unit's recent recognition.
"It's a lot of pride and a sense of honor that I'm given the opportunity to lead this school and be the principal of this outstanding unit," he said.
Cmdr. Hebert says the Central JROTC is not only preparing students in naval science, but going further. "That unit is preparing seniors for college," he said. "I wish every high school in America could do what Central does."