LANGDON — A small group of Fall Mountain Regional High School JROTC students started last school year as one of about 1,700 teams competing in the national program’s leadership bowl.

By the end of the year, they had advanced through two rounds of the quiz-bowl-style contest that tests students on their knowledge of current events and leadership values and skills, putting them in the top two percent of all teams. Then, in July, the team finished seventh in the country out of 40 teams at the national championship in Washington, D.C., a result Cadet Lt. Col. Serena Rathke said came as an “absolute shock.”

“We have like 50 cadets in our program, and a lot of these schools have hundreds,” said Rathke, a senior from Alstead who serves as battalion commander for Fall Mountain’s JROTC. “… To be competing against them was absolutely mind-blowing. It was crazy.”

The other members of the Fall Mountain team were Alexandra Booth of Alstead, Jesse Fisk of Langdon and Harrison Salisbury of Keene. Fisk and Booth were unable to attend the national championship July 19 through 23 on the campus of the Catholic University of America, so Connor Rheaume of Charlestown and Grace St. Pierre of Acworth took their places.

This was the first time the local team advanced to the national championship since Fall Mountain began its JROTC program in 1996, according to Maj. William Maynard, the program’s senior instructor.

“I was very proud of the team, very proud of the program, for their accomplishments,” said Maynard, a Manchester resident who retired from the U.S. Army in 2013 after a 28-year career and is in his sixth year leading the JROTC program at Fall Mountain. Along with a curriculum focused primarily on career and technical education courses, the program offers various co-curricular opportunities like the leadership bowl and marksmanship and drill teams.

U.S. Army JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — a national leadership development program for high-school students — covered the cost of the trip to the nation’s capital. For Salisbury, a senior at Keene High School who participates in Fall Mountain’s JROTC through the Cheshire Career Center, the flight into Washington made the whole experience feel real, and significant.

“Seeing the monuments flying in was a really important memory for me,” said Salisbury, a cadet captain who serves as the executive officer, or second in command, for Fall Mountain JROTC.

The one full day of competition included multiple-choice questions on scenarios in which cadets would need to make a management decision, such as when a conflict arises between other cadets. Students also competed in a variety of team-building activities, like holding a tarp full of holes and successfully guiding a ball across the surface. Hutchinson Central Technical High School in Buffalo, N.Y., took the top spot in the national championship.

Outside of the competition, the students got to spend their time meeting other cadets, and sightseeing around D.C.

“We got to do a lot of touring. We saw some of the Smithsonians, which I personally enjoyed,” said St. Pierre, a cadet first lieutenant and junior at Fall Mountain who added that the natural history and Native American history museums were her favorites. “And the competition itself was a lot of fun, as well.”

For Rheaume, the camaraderie between cadets, both during the competition and in down time exploring the city, was the highlight of the trip.

“Definitely the social aspect is a big part of it, but we also learned quite a bit about how to lead and just overall things that can better us as citizens and as ourselves,” said Rheaume, a cadet first lieutenant and junior at Fall Mountain.

Although the social interaction between students was not part of the competition, St. Pierre said she still learned important lessons by becoming friends with peers from places like Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Being able to interact with people who are different from you and who have had different experiences, I think is really, really valuable,” she said.

JROTC rules do not allow the same students who reached the national championship to compete in the leadership bowl again the following year, but Fall Mountain’s cadets said that won’t stop them from helping this year’s team build on their success.

“We’ll definitely recruit a lot of people,” St. Pierre said. “I think they’ll be excited to hear that we went [to nationals] last year and that Fall Mountain can have that kind of success. We’re a small school and we’re not really known for academics, so people underestimate what we can really do here. So, we’ll definitely talk to people about our experience, and maybe give some advice, too, when they start to compete.”

Rathke added that she will encourage fellow cadets to try out for the leadership bowl team, especially those who might be hesitant to participate, like she initially was.

“But I will be able to tell them, ‘If you push through the first two phases, then you will be able to go to D.C., you will be able to have a whole bunch of new memories and have a whole bunch of fun,’” Rathke said.

This year’s Fall Mountain JROTC leadership and academic bowl teams will begin forming in October, Maynard said, when students will take a test to help determine who will make the team. After that, the teams will have two rounds of competitions in November and February, with the potential to return to the national championships at the end of June. Maynard said he hopes Fall Mountain will be there again.

“I have long been a believer in building on your successes,” he said. “So that’s my plan.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.