RADCLIFF, Ky. -- Not even a minute into its platoon exhibition routine Sunday, a West Creek High School Cadet mishandled his rifle and it crashed to the floor.

A few minutes later, another Cadet couldn't grab a rifle being tossed his way and it fell, too. Moments later, yet another weapon dropped.

Christopher West, West Creek's drill team commander who led the group through five months of practice on the routine, wasn't sure how costly the mistakes would prove.

"Those shouldn't have happened. We had it in the bag," the senior said. "But when you're on the floor, you really don't know how you did until the awards ceremony."

In the end, the miscues ended up being insignificant as West Creek captured its first 7th Brigade SGM (Ret.) Paul C. Gray Invitational championship Sunday at North Hardin High School. The Tennessee school is the first new winner since 2009.

Three-time defending champ Montgomery Central, another Tennessee program, failed to place.
West Creek's performance in this year's 63-school field from Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, was dominant. Its other team, known simply as Team 2, finished second overall.

West Creek was helped by a more experienced group and by a Montgomery Central team decimated by graduation, Lee Redmon, the event's organizer, said.

West Creek Team 1 finished first in three of the seven competition categories, including the platoon exhibition, and took second or third in three others. Team 2 won two categories.

Even with the victory, the next few weeks leading up to the second annual Army Nationals April 6 in Louisville will be consumed with practice.

"The competition is fierce," West said. "For this level, I'm pleased (with the performance) but for the national level we've got work to do. … We've got to practice till we get it perfect."

Close to 1,500 Cadets competed in the meet that ran Saturday and Sunday at North Hardin and John Hardin high schools and North Park Elementary School. Besides drill, the meet included air rifle and academic competitions.

However, schools had to take part in seven drill categories to vie for the overall championship -- male and female/co-ed color guard, platoon and squad exhibition, platoon and squad regulation and inspection.

Besides students, the meet attracted several dignitaries, who applauded their efforts. Among them: Maj. Gen. Jeff Smith, Cadet Command's commanding general, Hardin County Schools Superintendent Nannette Johnston and the meet's namesake, Paul Gray.

Reserve drill sergeants judged the drill events, which amused them at times. Saturday's inspection, where Cadets' knowledge of a variety of events and information was challenged, provided much of the humor.

They got all kinds of answers to questions such as who is the secretary of defense (Chuck Hagel), who is the commander in chief (President Barack Obama) and what do they want to do after graduating high school. But when Staff Sgt. William Depriest asked Rebekah Achkar of White Station (Tenn.) High School for the maximum effective range of her rifle, she responded: "As far as I can throw it."

"They don't fire," said James DeVaney, the commander for White Station's inspection team.

Though individual and dual exhibitions didn't count toward team scores, dozens of Cadets jumped at the chance to show their flair for executing facing and rifle movements with their own spin.

Twins Jade and Jayme Cantrell of Cass Technical (Mich.) High School didn't place in dual exhibition, but they relished the opportunity to compete. Admitting they were nervous with dozens of people looking on, the applause they garnered after their routine made it worthwhile.

"Nervousness gets to you a little bit," Jade Cantrell said. "You still have to do what you have to do. You have to apply what you do at practice."

Success on the drill pad, Jayme said, hinges on the ability to stay focused. Being twins doesn't hurt.
"We feed off each other," Jayme said. "Her drive drives me."