High flyer Courtney Hatch is thrown into the sky in a well orchestrated "kick-full-basket" as she and the rest of her Costa Mesa High cheerleading squad practice after school, Tuesday. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / December 18, 2012)

Costa Mesa High School's cheer team thinks this is its year.

Coach Kori Johnson's squad took 13th place on a national stage in Florida last year. This February, she says the team has a legitimate chance of placing in the top five out of 20,000 cheerleaders and 500 high schools in the National High School Cheerleading Championship put on by the Universal Cheerleaders Assn. in Orlando each year.

"It's a really big deal," said Johnson, calling it the most prestigious cheer competition in the country. "That's the one you see on ESPN."

On Dec. 2, Costa Mesa took statewide honors when it bested their statewide rival Santa Monica High School.

For the past three years, Santa Monica repeatedly beat Mesa by one point.

"This year at state, we did so awesome," Johnson said. "We scored 15 points higher than we did last year."

On the bus home, the team begged Johnson to go to the national competition, although she was admittedly burned out from taking them for the first time last year.

"It takes a lot out of you to take 30 high school girls across the nation," Johnson said, adding that her team's dedication won her over. They've committed to the attending the national competition Feb. 9 and 10.

"They are working so hard to be an elite cheer team," Johnson said.

That means cheerleaders have graduated from beginning lifts and shoulder sits.

"We've been practicing a lot more than ever," said senior Taylor Jones. "And we're just more skilled than last year."

Jones competed on past teams that also performed mid-air flips, twists and complex stunts, but that skill-level is pervasive this year, Johnson said.

"We have every single group doing the elite stuff, which is kind of unheard of for us," she said.

Since the state competition, the team has raised funds by hosting bake sales, organizing a baby-sitting night and selling tamales and cheesecakes.

They need about $30,000 for the four-day trip. Even though parents have committed to picking up any costs not covered by fundraising, Johnson said even $5,000 raised would be a boon.

"To compete at that level is insane," the coach said. "It is fairly expensive to go, and it is very time consuming."

Mesa, with about 1,000 students and 45 girls on the cheer team, is relatively small, compared to the teams perennially competing nationally, Johnson said.

That's part of why, she said, even breaking into the top five would be an unprecedented victory for the school.

"We are absolutely an underdog," Johnson said. "You have to aim for perfection."

More information about the team or where to donate is available by emailing Johnson at cmhscheer@aol.com or visiting the team's Facebook page at facebook.com/cmhs.cheer.

jeremiah.dobruck2@latimes.com

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck