The cheerleading contest at the Wayne Regional Agricultural Fair is a big deal.

Nearly an hour before it was slated to begin in the grandstand area, the bleachers were packed and every available space surrounding the arena was being used by the squads perfecting their routines.

The annual event is open to all cheerleading squads in Wayne and surrounding counties, with two divisions in competition -- middle schools and high school varsity.

Each squad performs a sideline chant, cheer and dance routine, with only a minute and a half to show off their skills. Their entire routine cannot exceed three minutes, the rules state.

This year's contest drew 11 middle school teams, eight from Wayne County Public Schools -- Brogden, Eastern Wayne, Grantham, Greenwood, Mount Olive, Norwayne, Spring Creek and Wayne School of Engineering. The others were Farmville Middle, Frink Middle from LaGrange and Woodington from Lenoir County.

There were 10 varsity squads, six local -- Charles B. Aycock, Eastern Wayne High, Goldsboro, Rosewood, Southern Wayne and Wayne Christian. Others were East Duplin, Neuse Charter from Johnston County, North Lenoir and South Lenoir, the latter two being frequent winners in the event.

The local contenders who placed in 2016 were Goldsboro High and Eastern Wayne Middle, both taking third place in their categories. Wayne School of Engineering netted second place in the middle school group.

As the clock ticked down to signal the start, Penny Jordan was making her way to the GHS group. Carrying a poster in support of the squad, she had laryngitis so wasn't able to do any cheering herself.

Her daughter, Bethany Stewart, is the GHS coach, in her third year working with the 23-member squad.

"We work on making sure everything hits and it's really tight," Stewart said.

While others may opt for a more complicated and challenging routine, her strategy was more about precision.

"Rather than do difficult stunts, it's important to be tight, strong and clean," she said.

Head cheerleaders, seniors Nydaysia Allen and Jhazmine Lassiter, have been part of the group throughout high school.

"This is the main one (contest) because this is the fair, where all the squads come to compete," Lassiter said.

Senior Alaysia Spain said she enjoys being part of a team.

"And hopefully getting first place," Allen said.

"I just like to cheer, to compete. It's fun," said Erika Zapata, a senior.

Senior classmate Abbey Winders has been cheering since seventh grade. One benefit, she said, is the bond of trust that forms.

"It's like a sisterhood," she said. "We go through a lot of hard times but we always come out stronger."

Winders was confident going in, knowing where their squad's strengths were.

"Our dance is always the best," she said. "It's creative and it's great."

Spring Creek Middle teammates Perla Vega, a seventh-grader, and Kyla Uzzell, an eighth-grader, pulled away from their group to get a last-minute practice of their cartwheels, earnestly working to perform it in sync.

Seventh-grader Ricki Lane has been cheering for seven years, she said, wherever she can -- at school as well as with All-Stars groups.

Captain of the Gators squad Claire Denton has been participating with her school's team for three years.

Their strength, she said, is "probably our dance."

Much goes into such a routine, she admitted, with practices every day after school, five days a week. And then all their energy is focused on the fair.

"It's like our warm-up for our big county competition," she said.

Success, however, wasn't entirely hinging on an award alone.

For her group, she said, it would be measured in "hitting every stunt and jump. It's OK if we don't win first place as long as we did our best."

The 16-member Eastern Wayne Middle team put in one final rehearsal before the event got under way.

"We placed third last year," said head coach Jennifer Stevens.

Co-captains Carissa Place and Ariana Suggs, eighth-graders, hoped to bring home another win.

But they also were happy just to be there.

"When my sisters were in middle school I cheered with them," Place said. "I was like their little mascot."

It was Suggs' second year cheering, but it's something she has always wanted to do, she said.

It's hard work, she said, crediting her teammates with giving 100 percent.

"I enjoy that you get to show what you can do and you can have fun with it," Place said.

She admitted she has a way to psyche herself out beforehand to get into the zone for the task at hand.

"I pick a pole or a tree or something (to focus on)," she said.

The real prize, Suggs added, is "just knowing what I can do and knowing how much effort and time I put in."

When all the judges' scores were tallied, Lenoir County dominated.

Varsity winners were South Lenoir, first; North Lenoir, second; and East Duplin, third. Middle school winners were Frink Middle, first; Woodington, second; and Wayne School of Engineering, third.