DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 7, 2012) -- Having become a perennial national JROTC drill power, Francis Lewis High School Cadets became somewhat cocky. After all, the New York program had won four national titles in three years.

But at the Army national meet in March, they not only got surprised. They got humbled.

"It was a wake-up call for us," said Francis Lewis's Nicholas Kim, commander of the school's armed drill team. "Nobody had ever been through such a tough competition."

After finishing second to Douglas MacArthur (Texas) High School, Francis Lewis rebounded Monday to take the runner-up trophy in masters level demilitarized arms at the National High School Drill Team Championships at the Ocean Center.

John Jay (Texas) High School, an Air Force program, kept the Patriot Guard from a third straight overall victory. Douglas MacArthur came in third.

Robert Isenhour, Cadet commander for the Blue Guard, said this national meet posed a level of competition unlike any event he had seen.

"We gave it our all, and that's what counts," he said.

Francis Lewis's coach, retired Master Sgt. Lawrence Badia, said the Army championship wasn't what his Cadets wanted. They wanted to win in Daytona.

In the weeks leading up to the meet, the team focused on its weaknesses through intense practices. Badia said he knew his team would be stronger this time on the drill floor.

"There was no doubt in my mind," he said. "You want to peak in May. This is what we go for every year."

Smith Cotton (Mo.) High School finished a distant second in the alternative arms division to Fern Creek (Ky.) High School, which has held the category's top spot for more than a decade.

On the unarmed side, Army champion Douglas MacArthur finished seventh. Two Air Force programs from Texas, Thomas C. Clark and Brandeis, finished first and second, respectively.

Close to 3,000 Cadets from Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps programs competed over the weekend, the majority of them in the masters division. The challenge level, for less-experienced schools, was held Saturday.

The national meet represents the pinnacle of the sport's amateur side, generating excitement among participants, regardless of whether they win or lose.

Once exposed to the spotlight of the national event, it attracts many Cadets like a magnet. To them, being the focal point of a performance, with the drill area surrounded by dozen of spectators, is a feeling like no other.

Once they experience it, they want more. And more.

Just ask Julinkscia Walkins and Deborah Rivera, of North Miami Beach Senior High School.

"I get this adrenaline rush every time I get here" to the national meet, Rivera said. "I can't wait to show off and show people what I've got."

Don't get Rivera wrong. Her excitement stems from confidence, not cockiness.

The national meet is the culmination of months of practice. And in the case of Rivera and Walkins, both seniors, the finale to their drill careers.

"More than any part of the school year, this is the time of the year I look forward to," Walkins said.

The North Miami Beach Senior High duo have been anchors on the school's unarmed team. They helped the program to a region title two years ago and a runner-up finish at the first Army nationals meet in March.

Monday's final day of the masters level competition brought with it joy and sadness -- joy in getting to showcase their skill, sadness in that the end was near. The seniors said what they'll miss most is the people they have met and bonds they have formed with teammates.

"Even if we don't win, we know that we put it all out there," said Rivera, whose team finished third in the unarmed division.

Danarian Early, his face and head covered in beads of sweat, could say the same after he finished competing in dual exhibition with Lawrence Briscoe.

The Forestville (Md.) Military Academy Cadets were tapped to substitute for two other Cadets who got sick before the start of the national meet. While others duos had spent countless hours honing their routines in recent months, Early and Briscoe had four days.

Early, a veteran drill performer, actually welcomed the pressure. He and Briscoe ran through some moves when the arrived in Daytona and decided to let the rest "come naturally."

"For four days, we did good," said Early, who identified his biggest mistake as calling a drill sergeant "sir."

In the three years he has competed at the national meet, Early said he's been most pleased with the fact that he has improved each year. He said the drive to succeed has made him a better person on and off the drill floor.

"I'm a competitive person, so competing is my strong point," he said. "It's nice being under the lights, doing what you do best and loving it."