Before the sun rises, a dozen UCF ROTC cadets gear up with 40-pound rucksacks and shimmy along a makeshift rope bridge between palm trees.

The cadets are preparing for the annual Ranger Challenge, a 28-hour military competition that starts Friday, Oct. 15, at Fort Benning, Ga., home to the U.S. Army Ranger School.

Ranger Challenge is like the “varsity sport” of Army ROTC, the cadets joke. But it’s also a serious competition that pits schools against each other in physical fitness and tactical tests, such as navigating the woods at night, marksmanship and tossing grenades.

UCF’s “Fighting Knights” Ranger team is among the best in the Southeast, having placed eighth or better for at least 20 years. More than 40 university teams are in UCF’s division.

The experience — although tough and time-intensive — provides hands-on training and invaluable leadership opportunities. Graduates involved in the Ranger Challenge are more likely to receive officer commissions and earn coveted slots in military schools across the nation.

Plus, teammates say, it’s a lot of fun.

“People in my platoon love it — the sweat and getting dirty. They embrace the challenge,” said Peter Sulzona, UCF’s ROTC Ranger Challenge platoon captain and a senior majoring in Criminal Justice.

Training begins in the spring semester, and cadets continue through the summer. Ultimately, 20 or more may compete for 11 spots on the team.

“No position is secure, and one day of slacking could cost a cadet his or her position on the team,” Sulzona added. “It takes a lot of dedication for those chosen cadets to make it to the competition.”

At Fort Benning, they’ll be running 6.2 miles carrying at least 40 pounds, constructing rope bridges over water obstacles and assembling M16 rifles. Each competitor also has to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test, required of soldiers.

This year’s UCF Ranger Challenge team will feature women for the first time. Because women are playing a larger role in the armed forces, Sulzona says it’s only fitting that they compete with the team.

Ludmila Periera is one of UCF’s two female cadets training for the Ranger Challenge, and she looks forward to competing alongside her team members as “one of the guys.”

“Many girls may not be comfortable with the lifestyle, but I’m very proud to be here,” says Pereira, who is originally from Brazil and has served in the National Guard. “It’s a privilege to be part of the Ranger Challenge.”

About UCF Army ROTC: UCF’s department of Military Science is home to the Fighting Knights Battalion, the Army ROTC unit, which serves students at UCF, Valencia Community College and Seminole State College. The Fighting Knights Battalion was established in 1963 and is made up of more than 200 students. Learn more at