While the rest of Aurora sleeps soundly during the wee hours of Friday morning, the Aurora High School varsity cheerleaders will be getting up, meeting at school and driving to St. Louis to catch a flight to Orlando, Florida.
The trip will cap off months and months of hard work by the squad: in the gym, on the mat, at competitions and out in the community. Upon being named the champions for their class at the state cheer competition in November, the team earned an invitation to the UCA national competition at Walt Disney World.
In the days leading up to the trip to Florida, team members admitted that they're nervous, but looking forward to the experience.
"No matter how we do, as long as we go out there and hit it the way we want to hit it and do the best we can, it doesn't really matter how we place," said junior Lexi Johnson.
Competing on a national level is a new experience for the whole squad, as Aurora had not been competing at all up until a few years ago. But under the direction of Coach KayLynn Pennell and with the help of professional choreographers, the team has excelled to reach new heights.
"No one's really gone to nationals [from] here in Aurora," said junior Jordan Nelson. "I think I'm kind of blessed, in a way, that we get to go and do this."
Nelson and Johnson acknowledged that preparing for the national competition while also being expected to cheer at boys and girls basketball games has been difficult, but they've been up for the task. Another hardship the team faced was attempting to raise enough money for the trip, but thanks to an outpouring of community support, the cost has been covered.
"I love it because we came into high school and all the upperclassmen were saying 'no one really likes cheerleaders,'" said Nelson, "but now we can see all the support coming to us, and people actually love us and are there for us."
Johnson agreed, saying that their classmates and the community have begun to show more support than they used to. "Cheerleading before we started competing was [treated like] more of a joke, but we've made it more serious," she said.
"I want Aurora to know that I'm really grateful. We're all really grateful for what they've done for us," continued Nelson. "We try to show them how grateful we are, but just saying it is not enough. I just want to keep saying it over and over again."
With their newfound success, the team members now also feel they have a responsibility to future generations of Aurora cheerleaders.
"I want cheerleaders in the future to look back at us and be like, 'In 2016, they were state champs,' and to know our names," said Johnson, who hopes to be an inspiration to those future generations.
Nelson echoed the sentiment. "[We want to] just let other girls know that they can do it, too."
Both Nelson and Johnson said competing at a level like this wasn't even on the radar when they entered high school, but now that it's a reality, they're simultaneously nervous and excited for the opportunity.
"I never figured being a state champ would be possible either, but it's crazy," said Johnson, who said the thought of competing at nationals is "nerve-wracking."
The team will compete in preliminary competition beginning Saturday morning, with the semifinals held later that day and finals taking place on Sunday. While the athletes would obviously like to do well in the competition, they admitted it wouldn't be a total loss if they were knocked out early.
"We're going to Disney!" exclaimed Johnson, who stated that the team will likely spend more time at the resort if the competition doesn't go as well as they would like.
After a weekend of competition and fun, though, it's back to normal for the team, which will come home Monday morning and cheer later that night at the girls basketball game against Cassville.
In the end, it's that tireless spirit that makes this squad special.
"Whenever we step foot on the mat, we're one team," said Johnson. "One squad with one purpose: to go out and do the best we can."