DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Perhaps the greatest challenge facing JROTC programs competing Saturday in the challenge level of the National High School Drill Team Championships wasn't the meet itself.

It was the preparation.

After all, Cadets put in thousands of hours of work - practice becoming almost the equivalent of a full-time job for some - in going up against the nation's best.

For Smith-Cotton High School, the preparation paid off. The Army JROTC program from Missouri won the armed division national championship Saturday, the first Army team to win overall on the challenge level in two years.

Smith-Cotton beat out Hubbard High School, an Air Force program, by capturing two competition categories (regulation and color guard) and finishing second in another (exhibition).
The team failed to place in inspection.

Entries could score as many as 1,200 points in each category. Smith-Cotton earned 4,538 points to Hubbard's 4,322.

Amanda McAteer, a Smith-Cotton senior, attributed the victory to Cadets' motivation and their drive to excel.

The team was skeptical about its chances after starting the 2009 competition with inspection, she said. This year, starting again with inspection, they were upbeat.

"We were ready for anything that came at us," McAteer said. "We've worked hard and come a long way since last year."

Much of the last year was spent practicing routines for at least two hours a day. But even with all the time Cadets put in, their sole focus wasn't necessarily on gold.

"We're here to have fun, win or lose," McAteer said. "We still walk away with a smile on our face."

Of course, that smile, she said, is bigger today.

Teams that win overall on the challenge level must move up to the masters level, which includes the most experienced and strongest drill teams in the sport. That talent will pose an even greater challenge to Smith-Cotton next year, said McAteer, who is graduating.

Meanwhile, for a number of programs, Saturday marked their first time competing nationally.
Among them was Blythewood High School of Greenville, S.C. Its Cadets spent months - practicing as many as six hours a day several times a week - to ready.

But even with all the preparation, many Cadets in general find the national spotlight overwhelming. Nervousness runs rampant.

For Dominique Goyner, a senior with Blythewood and commander of the school's armed exhibition platoon, the key to fending off nerves was focus - focus on the routine and focus on winning.

"We came in here with the head game that we're going to win," he said. "This is what we live to do, so why should we be nervous' I love this."

Competing actually was a bit of a break to Sherice Gadsen. The Wilbur D. Mills High School junior graduates a year early this spring. And to do so, she has worked diligently to finish gobs of academic requirements - all while leading fellow Cadets four days a week in practice as the platoon commander for the school's unarmed regulation team.

She said she relished the opportunity to compete at the national level because many programs don't get the chance.

Gadsen also welcomed the stress that comes with performing in front of hundreds of people.

"I like it because that's how it's going to be in the real world," she said. "I like it, and I know how it will be."

Though the school left Daytona without any trophies, Cadets with the program from Little Rock, Ark., gained valuable experience.

"There's always next year," Gadsen said. "You just try harder."

On the unarmed side, Army programs were shut out from the overall awards. Hopkins County Central High School, an Air Force entry, took first, with Colts Neck, a Navy school, finishing second.

The challenge level also held an open color guard competition, which was won by Alamo Heights High School of San Antonio, Texas.

Complete results will be available at