MOLENA, Ga. -- As if the morning nippiness wasn't bad enough, an unintended dip in a partially filled stream didn't help Soddy Daisy (Tenn.) High School's female Raider team.

Clad in ACU bottoms and thin, porous moisture-wicking shirts, the girls strung a rope between two trees on opposite sides of the waterway. They had one problem, though: The makeshift bridge was tied to a tree too far away, not tight enough and sagged slightly.

As Cadets hooked onto the rope, it clearly couldn't hold their weight, routing their path across from the straight shot they hoped for to one directly into the chilly water and mud below.

"It's cold, it's cold," Ashley Gifford groaned as her backside raked along the bed also laden with rocks. "And it hurts."

As one of the first teams to compete in Saturday's first day of the annual JROTC National Raider Challenge Championships at the Gerald I. Lawhorn Scouting Base, Soddy Daisy quickly made its mark. Or, better yet, the event made its mark on Soddy Daisy.

Every one of the team's eight members got wet. But they weren't about to let the mishap wash out their goal: winning.

"We had never prepared a bridge like that before, but they went across," said Morgan Haynes, Soddy Daisy's female team captain. "These girls are amazing. They never stop."

Soddy Daisy is among 73 teams representing 44 schools across the country looking to return home as national champions. Francis Lewis (N.Y.) High School and Smith Cotton (Mo.) High School have returned to defend their 2011 crowns. Francis Lewis captured the male and female titles, and Smith Cotton topped the mixed division.

The national meet challenged Cadets physically and mentally in five events. Besides the rope bridge, they had to complete a team 5k run; a physical training challenge that included low-crawling, shuttle runs and carrying water-filled jugs nearly half a mile around a pond; the cross-country rescue and the Guantlet, where teams raced along a mile-and-a-half-long course over rough and hilly terrain while carrying four 35-pound rucksacks.

The training challenge left Josh McGowen, of South Gwinnett (Ga.) High School, winded and sweaty. He said the activity wasn't his biggest challenge. It was the temperature hovering the low-40s he and his teammates struggled to weather.

"It's hard to catch your breath in the cold weather," McGowen said. "We're not used to the cold. But we're powering through, and we know a lot of other teams aren't used to it, either."

With winners set to be crowned Sunday, some teams Saturday reveled in the simple fact that they were able to compete at a national level.

West Broward High School has been a standout in Florida Raider competitions in recent years, and retired Lt. Col. Ken Merkel, the senior Army instructor, rewarded his Cadets with a trip to the national meet.

To those like Elkin Howard, the school's Cadet battalion commander, winning would be a bonus.

"West Broward is on the map now," he said. "We're here to establish our name. We may not win anything, and that's OK. This is a new beginning."