As the nation continued its military buildup for possible war in Iraq, a military competition of another kind took place in the Huntington State Beach parking lot Saturday.
It was a breezy day replete with the usual contingent of bicyclists, inline skaters and sand hikers.
A few yards away, however, the asphalt vibrated under the rhythmic thump of boots as more than 1,000 high school and college students went through their paces.
Hailing from every corner of the country, they represented about 100 ROTC drill teams vying for honors at the 38th annual Southern California Invitational Drill Meet.
"It's a pride kind of thing," said Jason Harryman, 25, a spokesman for USC's Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps' Detachment, which sponsors the annual event. This year's meet -- open to squads representing all military branches -- offered 42 trophies in six categories.
"The purpose is to increase enthusiasm about the military among the cadets and the public," Harryman said. "It's a fun event and everyone has a good time."
That certainly seemed to be the case Saturday, except when real-life drill sergeants got within inches of some participants' faces.
Otherwise, the smartly uniformed squads -- some with wooden rifles -- strutted their stuff in front of military judges.
"Did you clean your weapon?" Marine Staff Sgt. Rodney Cantrell yelled at one cadet after looking at his rifle.
"Yes, sir!" the cadet responded.
"With what, dirt?" Cantrell shot back.
Each performance was cheered by the assembled parents and friends.
"It gives them something to focus on," said Phil Haxo, 40, whose 15-year-old son marches with the drill team of San Diego's Mira Mesa High School.
"He's a lot more organized because he does this every day."
One of the other high schools from that city -- Morse -- has an arms-bearing squad consisting mostly of boys and an unarmed team made up entirely of girls.
"The boys like to push the rifles," explained Cadet Capt. Bertina Denogean, 17, decked out in the regulation yellow beret, scarf, white blouse with cummerbund, white spats and yellow-striped blue slacks.
"It's more of a guy thing. The females like the prettier things -- the slaps and the beat -- we make music with our hands."
Harryman says he has seen more interest in all levels of ROTC activity in the wake of Sept. 11 and the country's enhanced preparedness for war. "There certainly is more participation," he said, adding that the turnout for this year's meet was the largest in years.
"It's fun and it's not boring," said Michelle Garibay, 16, a member of the squad from Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento.
"You get to travel with your friends and not your family."