National Champions in Our Midst: Drill Team Duet Places First at Nationals

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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Celeste M. Brooks P'12, '21, Director of Communications

For the first time since 2006, the Randolph-Macon Academy Air Force Junior ROTC VA-091 Drill Team traveled to Dayton, OH, to compete in the Air Force Junior ROTC National Drill Meet held at Wright State Nutter Center Arena on March 23, 2019. Competing against 28 other teams, most of whom had been participating in Nationals for years, R-MA finished a respectable eighth place overall, with seniors Cadet Captain Gabriel Rivera and Cadet Colonel Fatoumata “Rana” Diallo placing first in the Duet Competition.

In addition to the first-place finish by Rivera and Diallo, R-MA had a number of strong finishes. Freshman Cadet Airman First Class Masaru Mori placed sixth out of 630 cadets in the Knockout Drill Competition. The Color Guard finished seventh, and Inspection Team finished eighth. Diallo earned tenth place in the Commander’s Trophy competition, and both Unarmed Regulation and Unarmed Exhibition claimed thirteenth. 

The full drill team poses for their official photograph at the AFJROTC National Drill Competition in Dayton, OH, on March 23, 2019.

“Five years ago, we went to States for the first time, and we finished 18th out of 18 teams,” said TSgt Tina Laing, USAF, Retired, the drill team’s head coach. “I am very excited to go into this level of competition and finish so well. I am very, very proud of them.” 

The road to Nationals was not easy. Many of the cadets are involved in other activities. That includes Rivera, who plays varsity baseball and commanded one of the teams competing in the drill meet, and Diallo, who plays varsity soccer and acted as the commander for three of the drill teams. Laing explained that these two eventual National Champions were the only two members who were on all five teams (Color Guard, Inspection, Unarmed Regulation, Unarmed Exhibition, and Duet) that R-MA entered into the competition. Yet on the Tuesday before the event, it didn’t seem as if Rivera and Diallo would even be entering the duel event. 


“They led their teams, and they put every team before their duet,” Laing explained. “They kept saying, ‘We’ll get to that.’”

The two finally started prepping a few weeks before Nationals, but the varsity sports schedule combined with the extra drill team practices required careful time management to keep up with homework and sleep. Rivera started showing up later to the 6:00 am practices, and Diallo’s patience was wearing thin. On Tuesday, March 19th, Laing recorded the practice and at the end, told the two of them that they were ready and they should take a few days to rest. But she knew in her heart it wasn’t the truth.

R-MA alumnus Tajour Gadson '18, Fatoumata Diallo '19, Gabriel Rivera '19 and TSgt Tina Laing take a moment to celebrate Diallo and Gadson's National Champion status.

“It wasn’t their style,” she said. “They had no chemistry.” She spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what to do about it, knowing only that she could not let the two of them quit. Later that day, she recruited Tajour Gadson ‘18 to help her motivate the two of them. Gadson, who was already planning to travel to Nationals with the team, watched the video and called Diallo, then Rivera, convincing them to show back up to the 6 a.m. practice the next morning. 

Laing, Gadson, Diallo, and Rivera spent the next two days re-working the entire duet routine. The result was astoundingly different from what they had on Tuesday morning. The judges were amazed by their chemistry; one wrote on the evaluation form “I would have thought you two were MTIs [Military Training Instructors].” In every other competition, the Jackets had finished perhaps three points ahead of the next competitor. Diallo and Rivera took first place by an impressive 24 points.


Yet as amazing as it was for the Yellow Jackets to finish in the top third of the competition and have one team take first place, none of that was Laing’s favorite part of the drill meet. Instead, she described how tired all 600+ cadets were when it was over, and there was nothing to do but wait for the judges to tally the scores and begin the awards ceremony. That was when the Yellow Jackets truly shined.

“R-MA cadets literally got up and started yelling chants and cheers, to get the other teams to start pulling their camaraderie together,” she said. “And at one point, [freshman] Ali Bassett had the entire stadium doing the wave. She single-handedly said, ‘Let’s do this.’ We had a team up above us, and she’s yelling, ‘Come down! Come down!’ Never met these kids, never met these units. There was a unit next to us from New York. Our team interacted with them, ‘Come on, come together!’ We learned their chants and cheers, they learned our chants and cheers. The whole stadium, at one point, was singing the Air Force song. The director of the whole thing said this was the most enthusiastic event he’d ever seen, and it was so full of energy.”  This is the spirit of camaraderie Laing has sought to instill in her drill team. 


Excited by their eighth-place finish at Nationals, the R-MA cadets are already preparing for their next competition--defending their Air Force Association Virginia State Drill Championship title on April 27, 2019.

Now online: View the WDVM news story about the R-MA cadets.