WEST DEPTFORD, N.J. — A champion’s welcome awaited West Deptford High School Eagles Marching Band.
Police cruisers and fire trucks were poised to welcome the 2017 Tournament of Bands Champions home with sirens bellowing and flashing lights celebrating the band’s record-breaking win on Nov. 5.
The mayor, township committee and a crowd of their fans who didn’t travel to the Atlantic Coast Championships in Hershey, Pennsylvania, waited in the high school parking lot.
But the band, winning their 8th consecutive championship title, was delayed big time — about seven hours.
By the time they crossed from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, the high school parking lot party had cleared out.
“We got stranded,” Gabe Allen, 14, said later, laughing. The freshman bass drum player was still on a winner’s high.
Their buses broke down, turning the two-hour trip home from Hershey into an odyssey transforming their yellow school buses into a roadside victory party on the curb of a Pennsylvania cemetery.
“Everyone was just happy and a weight was lifted off our shoulders,” Gabe said. “One of the parents got us pizza, so that was cool.”
Never in the 45-year history of the Tournament of Bands, the marching band championship sponsor, has a group won eight consecutive Atlantic Coast Championship titles, according to the organization’s director, Jeffrey Dent.
Seven in a row has been done before, he said. Never eight.
“It’s a huge accomplishment,” Dent said.
His organization runs competitions in nine states, from New York to West Virginia.
“It’s a very significant thing. It shows their commitment to quality and education,” the TOB director noted.
West Deptford, which participated in the first Tournament of Bands competitions in 1973, entered the championship this weekend ranked No. 1 of 209 bands in its four-state division: New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Maryland.
An ACC win seemed like a lock, even in Sunday’s unfavorable weather conditions.
But a dozen years ago, when the band was far less competitive, the high school band’s director Tom Kershaw — known to his students as “TK” — couldn’t see this coming.
“It was an evolution of the program from the time I got here,” he remembered. “Slowly you grow roots. And little pieces start to grow. Then you have everything you need.”
Creeping up to the band’s first championship title in 2010, Kershaw started to see potential. His crew started bringing home second- and third-place trophies.
“We finally broke through in 2010, and we haven’t let go since,” he said.
Every year, his most experienced students graduate and a batch of green freshman join up. The training starts all over again. It’s the support staff around the students that keep the organization focused, he said.
His staff are largely West Deptford alumni who learned his style when they were high schoolers. A strong parent group raising funds, moving and building props and keeping energy high for the musicians has been invaluable, Kershaw explained.
“When they join marching band, they don’t know what they’re getting into until they do it,” Kershaw said, a little laugh punctuating the truth of his statement.
The rehearsal schedule is grueling. It begins in the summer, and lasts through the holidays. They rehearse three nights a week in the fall, then have short rehearsals all weekend before performing at home and away football games on Friday nights and at competitions on Saturdays and Sundays.
Despite the demand on students, attendance has never been a problem, Kershaw said.
“I don’t have kids missing rehearsals. They know they’re important and their contribution matters. It’s important to them,” he explained.
“The kids police the quality, and they demand excellence from each other.”
Hours before a football game, the band takes over the halls of the empty high school. They split off into their respective sections and tuck into nooks throughout the campus to go over tricky sections of music before they perform on the home field. Saxophone players find a stairwell. The drum line buffers its boom by rehearsing outside in front of the building. Color guard picks a grassy area to polish rifle and flag tosses.
The extra time earned the 2017 champions additional awards, including best music, best woodwinds, second-place brass, second-place color guard and fourth-place percussion.
Their initiative and commitment also earns the band members Kershaw’s pride and respect.
As four members of the band — the drum major, and three section captains — stood on the field waiting for the award announcement, Kershaw says the emotions started flowing. Every year it intensifies.
“It’s not so much adrenaline. It’s pride,” he said.
“I watch them in amazement of what they achieved because I remember what they were doing in July and August.”
The season flashed before Eric Mizner Jr., an eighth-grade sax player. He’s a rookie. After a streak of wins since September, Eric, 13, remembered his first performance at a football game at Audubon High School.
“It was very bad,” he said.
The phrase “never forget Audubon,” helped keep him focused.
“It all came together, and all the hard work paid off,” Eric said.
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/