This season, spanning more than three months and 24 games, certainly has tested the mettle and courage of the Peyton girls' basketball team.

At 23-1, the Panthers passed the regular season and district tournament with an unqualified superior grade.

But it wasn't until late Tuesday that the entire school could actually celebrate Peyton's achievement and consecutive 2A state tournament appearances.

The annual Transitional Colorado Assessment Program, fondly known as TCAPs, still takes precedence.

"Testing comes first, since they are students before athletes," Peyton athletic director Tim Van Sickler said. "Tomorrow (Wednesday) is the final TCAP day, and it's also spirit day. All the kids can dress up in red and black, and we're going to give the girls a great sendoff to state."

Late Tuesday, Peyton's cheerleaders finally could start the task of turning their school into a black-and-red paradise, one that the Panthers could use as a motivational force heading into their 8:45 a.m. Thursday tipoff against Hoehne (21-1) at Massari Arena on the campus of Colorado State-Pueblo.

Behind the scenes, scores of students broke out markers, paint and glitter. By early Wednesday, the small school 24 miles east of Colorado Springs should have had a much different look.

"We put together three banners that will be in the school, and we've worked hard transforming the school to get the girls pumped up," said Jennifer Miller, the Panthers' cheerleading coach and adviser. "During testing, you can't have any interruptions or anyone in the hallways. We've been waiting for this."

So, too, has the basketball team. Last March, the Panthers made a long-awaited return to the state tournament and downed Sangre de Cristo in the quarterfinals, ending a three-decade drought.

On Thursday, the Panthers hope to start a journey that will last into Saturday night. A Peyton girls' program has never won a state championship in school history, which dates all the way back to 1888.

And with the early tip-off, school administration decided to give Peyton a day off Thursday to hopefully give its team a decided home-court advantage.

"I was pretty surprised that we canceled school so our friends can be at our game," said Panthers junior guard Emily Green, who ranks among the tops in 3-pointers. "People are really excited here. We're not the tallest or biggest, but we want to get our name out there and show everyone what we're about."

That's where the cheerleaders take the lead, not only in decorating the school with banners, but giving their personal touch to the team bus when it departs first thing Thursday morning.

"While our transformation of the school is somewhat minimal, we have huge amounts of spirit," said Miller, in the third year at her position