Story and Photos by: MAJ (R) Bryan F Williams
The sport of shooting was showcased at Island Coast High School in Cape Coral for the 2024 Army JROTC State Championship. The state’s top 100 air rifle Cadet athletes from all across Florida competed for the opportunity to take home a collection of prestigious medallions and trophies. While a shooting sport may raise eyebrows of some, Marksmanship has proven to be an activity providing young people with essential life skills such as concentration, self-control, discipline, teamwork, critical thinking, and decision-making. The competition was fierce with high-performing athletes from numerous teams receiving accolades. However, the day belonged to Mariner High School, the defending state champions.
This year’s match provided a number of special opportunities for Cadet athletes. Several agencies set up information booths to engage Cadets about opportunities for life after high school. On hand included university scholarship officers and ROTC representatives, military recruiters from the Army National Guard, Coast Guard (to include recent boot camp graduates), and Marines as well as several Veteran organizations (VFW, American Legion, Blue Star Mothers and Military Officers Association of America).
The highlight event was several virtual seminars with the Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU), arguably the United States premier competitive shooting organization. In between shooting relays, Cadet athletes were invited to attend a special seminar. Sergeant First Class George Norton, an American record holder and international shooting champion spoke to Cadet athletes about mental preparation, critical life skills learned in shooting sports, and opportunities after high school (scholarships, Olympics, and joining AMU). As a product of the St Johns Military School JROTC program, Norton said ‘I think the most powerful testimony of my success in shooting and in life is the influence my JROTC instructor, Master Sergeant Tony Blair had on me. JROTC gave me purpose and a direction for my life. Master Sergeant Blair taught me how to be disciplined and the type of commitment that was necessary to achieve my goals and excellence in everything I tried. I owe him everything for the man I’ve become. I’ve always wanted to put some type of clinic or training seminar together that would give back to the JROTC community.’
Mariner’s Marksmanship team is coached by husband and wife dynamic duo Marybeth and Major (R) Bryan Williams. Williams is the Senior Army JROTC Instructor and Coach Williams is a volunteer coach, logging over 2,500 volunteer hours at Mariner. Williams offered “A quote we frequently share with our Cadets is ‘If you want to know your God-given gift, think of the thing you do best with the least amount of effort.’ We have been mentoring and coaching young people our entire marriage. Coaching this team allows us to share our gifts.”
‘Major’ and ‘Coach’ (as the Cadets affectionately refer to their coaches) began their Marksmanship journey towards success in 2019, immediately setting goals of attaining State and National recognition. The Williams are no stranger to success. Williams is a 2021 Golden Apple recipient and both VFW and American Legion Teacher of the Year, and Coach Williams has won multiple Volunteer of the Year awards. Both of the Williams played rugby at the National level during the military service years. Major Williams said “Our first two years (which included a one-year hiatus without Coach Williams due to COVID restrictions of volunteers on campus) were spent putting building blocks in place – new equipment, expanded shooting range capacity, and a disciplined training regimen. However, our real secrets to success extend way beyond the actual shooting process. Our number one focus is on developing young people of character and honing life skills and values, such as discipline, self-control, respect, teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. The other key ingredient is our parent support. Every parent on the team is involved: refilling air tanks, donating healthy snacks, transporting Cadets and equipment, helping with fundraisers, and more. It takes a village.”
Mariner’s Cadet athletes take their teamwork well beyond the boundaries of the shooting range. Cadets frequently volunteer and serve their community, particularly in support of Veteran organizations. Team Commander and recently crowned JROTC State Champion Eryka Vazquez added “We have a partnership with the American Legion Post 90, the Pine Island Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Military Officers Association, and Lee Health Military Support Group. Our team performs Color Guards, Wreath Laying ceremonies, placing flags and wreaths for Veterans at cemeteries, and making care packages and cards for troops deployed overseas. In return, the Veterans often come to our practices and matches to share advice and support us. This team has taught me the best way to show teamwork is to serve others.” Kim Gaide, the Director of Lee Health Military Support Group agrees. “When Mariner JROTC says they are going to help, they mean it! I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the hearts of these amazing young people. They are constantly visible and following through with their commitments to serving our community.”
The building blocks placed in the early years have produced incredible results in the past 18 months. In 2022-23, the Fighting Tritons won three State Championships (JROTC, American Legion, and the Civilian Marksmanship Program Junior Olympics) and qualified for three National Championship matches, placing 9th twice and 11th. When asked about what contributed to their success, Cadet Vazquez replied “One thing is never giving up on ourselves. Coach always tells us that life is not about how you act when things are going well, but how you react when things are not. It’s all about a positive mindset. Marksmanship has taught me that sometimes we make a bad shot. While it is important that we acknowledge what caused the bad shot, we cannot dwell on it. We need to regroup, remain in a positive mindset, and mentally plan and prepare for the next great shot. This is a life approach.”
The Williams also focuses an inordinate amount of time connecting individually to each athlete, spending time after practice each day to talk to both Cadets and their parents about life issues. “We talk about school work and study strategies, how to communicate with others about their problems, self-image issues, dating, stress and anger management, and about anything you can imagine a teenager is going through. If you ask a Cadet what means the most to them about this team, they will say ‘this is my second family.’ We want our Cadet athletes to feel this is a safe environment to express themselves and make deep, lasting friendships.”
This also means prioritizing academics with a weekly grade check. Cadets are required to take a screenshot of their weekly grades and turn it in for the coaches’ review. Any grade below a C requires an explanation of why, what their plan is to bring the grade up, and an email to their teacher with the plan. “If an athlete is not disciplined or responsible enough to take care of their top priority, they definitely are not disciplined enough to compete at a high level. We place Cadets on academic suspension if they do not maintain Cs or better.” The recipe once again works as evidenced by the team’s cumulative grade point average of 3.6, which includes a 97% school attendance rate! The majority of the Varsity members are also in National Honor Societies.
One final key ingredient to the Mariner success recipe is mentorship. “In JROTC, we teach a Steps to Success process. The fourth step is to have a mentor. Each Varsity member is assigned a JV Cadet to mentor. Varsity members have mentors from NCAA shooting camps they attended. Coach and I have many mentors that we frequently talk to our kids about including several National Champion coaches and athletes, we have marriage mentors, spiritual mentors, and wellness mentors. Our intent is to role model the ‘It takes a village’ concept – teamwork!”
This year, the recipe for the Steps to Success continues as Mariner won its second consecutive JROTC and American Legion State Championships and is the #1 qualifier in the U.S. for two National Championship matches – Army JROTC Nationals in Alabama and Junior Air Rifle Nationals in Ohio. While winning the JROTC State Championship, Mariner swept the top four individual awards:
1st – Eryka Vazquez (Team Commander)
2nd – Nathan Krokstrom (who has won three other State Championships)
3rd – Elyssa Vazquez (the youngest on the squad)
4th – Tyler Dennard (Junior Olympic State Champion and a goal to compete at an international level)
“We are very proud of the results and accomplishments of our Marksmanship family. However, results will never be more important than the character of our Cadets. Billy Graham once said ‘When money is lost, nothing is lost. When health is lost…something is lost. However, when character is lost, all is lost.’ This is our mantra. This is the secret ingredient to any formula for success. Then, the results come”, says Major Williams. And the results have definitely come for Mariner.