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Forget about a charm. For the Washington County High School Marching Band, the third time was a championship.
The Commander band made its third consecutive trip to the Kentucky Music Educators Association Marching Band Championships Saturday night at Papa John’s Stadium in Louisville. The past two years, they came away with third place in Class 2A. This year, they came home with a state championship. This year’s theme was “De Ja View.”
“It’s overwhelming. It’s been 26 years, and we finally got there,” WCHS Band Director Debbie Harrod said after the win. Harrod has been at WCHS for 16 years, and spent 10 years at Nelson County prior to coming back to her hometown of Springfield.
“The funny thing is, I never thought it would be this group because they are so young. But I tell you, this group has just amazed me from day one until now. They have the best attitude and they work so hard. It doesn’t matter how many times I yell at them, it’s still ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’”
Young is an understatement for Harrod. After losing 15 seniors from last year’s state finals band, Washington County featured just three seniors this year, but had several eighth graders and freshmen on the field, showing talent in the present and promise for the future.
The Commanders’ exciting day got started at 6:45 a.m. Saturday, which Harrod pointed out is actually a late start for her band. After practicing at the school in Springfield, it was off to Pleasure Ridge Park High School in Louisville for state semi-final competition. WCHS was slated to perform 14th out of 16 bands, and they took the field at 2:30 p.m. To make things even more challenging, they went on immediately after Muhlenberg South High School, which was last year’s defending state champion.
After completing their show, it was time to wait for results. With two more bands to go, and then tabulation of scores, it was almost an hour later before they learned that they were not only among the top four bands and would advance to Saturday night’s state finals, but they were also the overall winners of the semi-final competition with a score of 85.28. That put them just ahead of the other finalists, Caldwell County with 85.1, Muhlenberg South with 83.05 and Shelby Valley with 83.
Three hours sounds like a lot of time, but with all of their equipment to be loaded and moved across town to Papa John’s Stadium, the band members, or more accurately the band parents, had their hands full in making the move.
“We couldn’t do it without these parents. They are phenomenal,” Harrod added. “You see how much stuff we have to get out here on the field, and they are there for us, and they’ve got it down to an art. They know exactly what to do and when to do it.”
Another person without whom Harrod said she could not do it is assistant band director Scotty Burns. A native of Springfield, Burns graduated from WCHS in 1992, then attended Campbellsville University where he earned his masters degree in music education. He served one year as band director at Evarts High School in Evarts, Ky., and seven years as director at Metcalf County High School.
“Scotty Burns has been a huge help. He and I have developed a relationship that we work really well together. What I’m not strong in, he’s strong in, and vice versa,” Harrod said.
Burns said he is proud of the young band and how the members have matured throughout the season.
“They deserved it. It’s really a young group, but they matured more over the course of the season than some bands do over two or three years,” Burns said. “Our seniors showed great leadership and the ability to motivate those younger kids.”
As 7 p.m. rolled around, the Commanders were set to take the field for the final time this marching season. They did, and they put on a performance that was even sharper than the earlier show in semi-finals.
Now, again, it was time to wait. The results would be announced, but it would be nearly midnight before the Commanders would learn their fate.
Four bands perform in the finals in each class, and as the results are read, fourth place was called out first. Although they were a close second in semi-finals, Caldwell County placed fourth in the finals this year. Shelby Valley, a tiny school from Pikeville with less than 30 band members, finished third. It was clear that Washington County had improved on its performances from the previous two years. But where would the Commanders finish this year?
As the announcer began to call out the second place band, the faces of Washington County band members were filled with emotion. Some smiled, others winced, waiting to hear the results, but somehow not wanting to hear, just in case.
“Second place,” the announcer called out, then paused briefly, but yet what seemed an eternity before continuing, “Muhlenberg South.”
The champions had been defeated, and Washington County had won. The winces disappeared, and all faces were filled with smiles. Debbie Harrod was quickly greeted with hugs from her band members.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was just incredible,” Kristen Harrod said after the win. Harrod is one of three seniors in this year’s band, and also daughter of director Debbie Harrod. She, along with Michael Cook and Ryan Price, have been playing together since sixth grade.
“These are my brothers right here,” Harrod said, hugging her fellow seniors. “I think it’s a good way to go out. It was a really personal thing for me to come out here and do my best and see us get a first place, to know that my mom brought us out here. And playing a duet with my sister meant so much to me!”
Kristen played the trumpet in that duet with her younger sister Caitlyn, a junior, who played the mellophone.
“We’re coming back next year! We’re coming back,” Cook exclaimed. Price added, “It’s a great way to end your senior year!”
The Commander band had the support of a large group of hometown fans, and both Cook and Price commented that the band is more popular now, and has a larger fan base than in the past due to its recent success and state finals appearances.
“We hope we’re setting a tradition here. These kids have made history tonight,” Debbie Harrod added. “Nobody else that I know in Washington County has done this, as a collective group, to go through district, regionals and come out on top.”
Mary Kutter was field commander of the band this year. The junior had played the flute in previous years, but said she enjoyed the challenge and added responsibility of her new role.
“It was really exciting,” Kutter said. “I’m truly honored to be a part of it.”
The road to the top didn’t come easily for the Commanders, and Harrod pointed out that her band didn’t try to make it easy.
“You can pick and choose what contests you want to go to until you get to regionals. Until that point, you can skirt that competition if you choose to. We went looking for it,” she said, pointing to the last competition before regionals when Washington County traveled to McClean County on Oct. 18 to face some of the tougher competition, including a couple of other state finalists. “They (Muhlenberg South) went to Tennessee that weekend, but Caldwell County and Trigg County had beaten Muhlenberg South, and we knew if we could hang with them, we could probably hang with Muhlenberg South, and that panned out for us.”
Another tactic that panned out for the Commanders was the physical activity before practice each day. Harrod said her band members run, stretch and do other physical activity to help build stamina and get them in good physical condition, which would play into their favor on long days like Saturday, and help them be prepared to win.
“That’s what we shot for because most Saturdays we would have two runs, prelims and then finals. We were shooting for today to increase that stamina, so that when we got here it would just be like another day,” she said.
It was anything but another day for the Commander band. Now, the members can celebrate and enjoy their accomplishment before getting back to work on next year’s show. The seniors will move on, but the other members will remain to try to live up to the words of Michael Cook when he said, “We’re coming back next year. We’re coming back!”