OAK HILLS - When it comes to being an award-winning drama team, Oak Hills High School students say that it's just as much about having fun as it is about hard work.

"There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It's really stressful, but when you get on stage to perform, it all just goes away and it's so worth it," junior Ryan Keen said.

The Oak Hills drama department recently placed second overall in the Drama Teachers Association of Southern California 2016 competition, a significant feat considering many of their competitors are schools dedicated to the arts.

"You get to jump into this whole new world at the festival," senior Nastassja Gailing Escobar said. "You realize you're competing against drama students who have been doing this since they were little kids ... We're just really grateful to always be getting top places with them."

The drama department has been competing and earning awards in DTASC since Oak Hills opened seven years ago, under the leadership of drama teacher Paula Hunter, who has taught within Hesperia Unified School District for about 20 years.

"Ms. Hunter and the students within our drama program work tirelessly on perfecting their performances," OHHS Principal Michael Capps said. "Their efforts, along with the leadership of Ms. Hunter, has placed the Oak Hills High School drama program among the most elite programs in the state."

Hunter says she believes the key to the program's success is having designated student directors - older students who train and support their underclassmen, preparing them for the competitions.

"The older students maintain the enthusiasm they have for the program and they pass it along to those under them," Hunter said. "Their excitement is infectious."

Around 80 schools usually compete in DTASC, which is a bi-annual event with both varsity and junior varsity competitions. Students prepare and present scenes of plays in categories such as Women's Playwright, Large Group Comedic and Golden Oldies.

"We also build our own sets and do our own lights," senior Martha Velazquez said. "And there's a festival competition for costumes, which we won second place in."

Beyond their festival performances, the students most recently put on a production of High School Musical, and on Friday they did auditions for their spring play, Seussical, a musical based on the books of Dr. Seuss

Although Hunter encourages her students to be well-rounded and participate in other electives and activities, most of them keep coming back to drama, some leaving sports or ASB to dedicate more time to practices.

"Once a freshman goes to their first festival, they want to go to all of them," junior Danniela Mesen said.

The "festival experience" is something the students say "changes your mindset on acting" and "shows you things you've never seen before."

"When you make people laugh on stage, there's nothing else like it," junior Michael Miletti said. "It's a really good feeling."

Many of the students said that before drama, public speaking was a struggle for them.

"Drama and competing really helped me branch out," freshman Christopher Merino said, adding that people who know him well have told him they've noticed the difference in him and his ability to overcome shyness.

Only a few of the students said they would be looking toward a career in theater, but most seemed to agree that they're excited to continue seeking future opportunities just for fun.

"Even though I'm not pursuing acting as a life career, I've learned a lot in just one semester," freshman Jonathan Rivas said. As he listed public speaking and teamwork as skills he's gained in drama, other students chimed in things like responsibility, independence and discipline.

"I had extreme stage fright, but after a lot of practice, it was like 'Dude, what is there to be afraid of?'" freshman Sebastian Barhart said. "And our journey to get to where we were in the festival - it was amazing. It was like we won the Super Bowl."

Charity Lindsey may be contacted at clindsey@vvdailypress.com or 760-951-6245. Follow her on twitter @DP_Charity.