CHARLOTTE - For aspiring TopCats like Katy Plant, it's a dream come true.
For veteran TopCats like Eiesha Williamson, the dream lives on.
Thirteen returners and 11 rookies have been selected to represent the Carolina Panthers as TopCats cheerleaders for the 2012 season after surviving a month-long tryout process that started with about 150 hopefuls.
"I'm so excited," said Plant, who just graduated from Appalachian State University. "It definitely was tough. It challenges you mentally, physically and emotionally.
"But I have never felt so welcomed. It was an exhilarating experience and an amazing experience. I can already say I've made friends for a lifetime. It's a little sisterhood, and I'm excited to be a part of it."
While Plant didn't know what to expect when she decided to try out, Williamson certainly did. Shelby Williams is only TopCat with more experience – she made it for the fifth time – but Williamson was first on the squad in 2005 before taking a break and now returning for a third consecutive season.
"You're even more eager to try out as a veteran because you know what's at stake, you know the excitement that's going to take place in the year to come," Williamson said. "At the same time, that brings more anxiety because you want it so bad.
"It also gets more difficult. The dancing improves every year, and there's more physical training involved with auditions. When I came back in 2010, the expectations were higher. The squad just gets better every year."
And making the squad gets tougher. Cheerleader choreographer/coordinator Richelle Grant said the 40 finalists were pushed harder than ever this year, having to learn three different routines from scratch on three consecutive nights before taking the weekend to prepare for the final audition.
"It was definitely the most challenging audition we've had from a learning and execution standpoint," Grant said. "We have raised the bar each year. They handled it very well."
Dancing ability is a big part of the equation, but it's only a part of the puzzle when selecting the squad.
Williamson epitomizes the total person the TopCats covet. Already having earned undergraduate and master's degrees, the Charlotte resident is on track to earn her Ph.D. in organizational management and business in 2013.
In the meantime, the business she founded in 2001 as a part of the Miss Virginia pageant, MADE Today Inc., now has four Charlotte locations teaching more than 300 girls cheerleading, dance and gymnastics.
"Education is huge to me," Williamson said. "I believe I'll technically be the first doctor TopCat."
Plant is just starting on her journey, managing to participate in the protracted tryout process as she put the finishing touches on earning a degree in management. She is one of three recent Appalachian State dance team members to make this year's TopCats squad, along with Maegan Eichinger and Katie Guthrie.
"When I went to my first Panthers game when I was eight years old, watching them dance really inspired me as a young girl," Plant said. "Seeing the TopCats at such a young age helped give me the kind of passion I have, so I figured I'd go out on a limb and go after a childhood dream."