Fort Knox, KY (April 19, 2018) -- Before the sun even broke the horizon, over 1,800 young men and women were unloading gear and uniforms -- and each other -- off buses and trailers in the grey early morning mist at the Expo Center in Louisville, Kentucky. This is not where you find your normal teenager at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. But these are not ordinary teenagers -- these are Army JROTC Cadets. And these were the best of the best of them.

The Army JROTC National Drill Championships hosts the best drill and color guard teams from high school programs across the nation. Teams are nominated by their brigades to compete at the nationals, with winners securing spots to compete at the all-service National Drill Championship, held annually in Dayton Beach, Florida.

Cadets and teams drove or flew into Louisville from as far away as California, Florida and New York. This year's championship showcased the largest number of teams in the event's history with 94 teams from 69 schools entered, and highlighted the growing female presence in JROTC. For the first time, more than half of the cadets entered were female, and several all-female teams took top honors on Saturday.

The North Miami Beach Senior High School's Lady Chargers just edged out Ronald Reagan High Schools' Diamondbacks, from San Antonio, Texas, for a back-to-back title as Overall Champion in the unarmed division. The Theodore Roosevelt's Riderettes, also from San Antonio, claimed third place overall in the unarmed division.

Grant High School's Maroon Knights, from Dry Prong, Louisiana, took back-to-back titles, placing first in the armed division, soundly beating out Marmion Academy, Aurora, Illinois, and Airport High School, West Columbia, South Carolina, placing second and third respectively.

It was fitting that the closing ceremony was led by Col. Janet Holliday. Holliday knows a little about being "first" as well -- she was the first female commander of both Accessions Support Brigade and Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.

"I was never very good at drill myself," said Holliday, noting that she was extremely impressed by the quality of every team that participated.

"I have no idea how the judges were able to pick winners because there was very little difference in quality between them," she added. The competition at this level is so high, truly any team could take the title.

"What people don't realize, it's a two-a-day sport for these kids. Mornings and afternoons, it's as many hours or more than a varsity sport," Col. Michael Stinnett, Director, JROTC.

But the Cadets know. Cadet Da'Von Carter, of West Creek High School's Coyote Guard from Clarksville, Tennessee, inspired fellow cadets during practice outside before their turn at the Armed Exhibition contest. "This is where you put all your focus. This is what we train for." His team placed ninth in the Armed Exhibition and first in the Armed Dual Exhibition.

The U.S. Army JROTC is a one of the world's largest youth-oriented programs, with more than 310,000 students enrolled in JROTC programs annually. Its mission, "Motivating Young People to be Better Citizens," was on clearly on display Saturday. During Holliday's speech at the awards ceremony, she noted that JROTC has an almost 100% graduation rate for students enrolled in JROTC.

"It (Drill) teaches Cadets to finish what they start. A Cadet who can stand in a formation and execute drill will not balk at having to study or do homework in order to succeed academically, which leads to our phenomenal graduation rate," said Holliday.

Results by category were:

Unarmed - Overall Championship
North Miami Beach Senior High School, Miami, Florida

Armed ‐ Overall Championship
Grant High School, Dry Prong, Louisiana

Unarmed - Inspection
1st Place -- Smith-Cotton High School, Sedalia, Missouri
2nd Place -- Winston Churchill High School, San Antonio, Texas
3rd Place -- Theodore Roosevelt High School, San Antonio, Texas

Armed ‐ Inspection
1st Place -- Grant High School, Dry Prong, Louisiana
2nd Place -- Marmion Academy, Aurora, Illinois
3rd Place -- Airport High School, West Columbia, South Carolina

Unarmed ‐ Regulation
1st Place -- North Miami Beach Senior High School, Miami, Florida
2nd Place -- West Creek High School, Clarksville, Tennessee
3rd Place -- Theodore Roosevelt High School, San Antonio, Texas

Armed ‐ Regulation
1st Place -- Grant High School, Dry Prong, Louisiana
2nd Place -- Union High School, Union, New Jersey
3rd Place -- East Carter High School, Grayson, Kentucky

Unarmed ‐ Color Guard
1st Place -- Ronald Reagan High School, San Antonio, Texas
2nd Place -- North Miami Beach Senior High School, Miami, Florida
3rd Place -- Thomas Jefferson High School, Denver, Colorado

Armed ‐ Color Guard
1st Place -- Grant High School, Dry Prong, Louisiana
2nd Place -- Fayette County High School, Fayetteville, Georgia
3rd Place -- Union High School, Union, New Jersey

Unarmed ‐ Exhibition
1st Place -- Theodore Roosevelt High School, San Antonio, Texas
2nd Place -- Mansfield High School, Mansfield, Texas
3rd Place -- Ronald Reagan High School, San Antonio, Texas

Armed ‐ Exhibition
1st Place -- Marmion Academy, Aurora, Illinois
2nd Place -- Springfield High School, Holland, Ohio
3rd Place -- Gurdon S. Hubbard High School

Unarmed Dual Exhibition
1st Place -- William G. Enloe High School, Raleigh, North Carolina
2nd Place -- Ronald Reagan High School, San Antonio, Texas
3rd Place -- Ozark High School, Ozark, Missouri

Armed Dual Exhibition
1st Place -- West Creek High School, Clarksville, Tennessee
2nd Place -- Marmion Academy, Aurora, Illinois
3rd Place -- Waukegan High School, Waukegan, Illinois

Armed Solo Exhibition
1st Place -- Marmion Academy, Aurora, Illinois
2nd Place -- Ringgold High School, Ringgold, Georgia
3rd Place -- Central Hardin High School, Cecilia, Kentucky