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In state battle of the bands, there are no losers

LOUISVILLE — The results had been announced and the trophies presented.

Lafayette Band director Chuck Smith and a few helpers had walked through the rows of 200 students, putting a medal around each neck. Everyone held ranks, more or less, amid an electric atmosphere of pure, pent-up joy.

Finally, Smith dismissed the band the way Lafayette directors have been doing for at least a half-century, by asking who they were.

“Lafayette Band!” was the thunderous reply. “Pride of the Bluegrass, Sir!”

With that, the practiced precision that had just won Lafayette the title of best marching band among Kentucky’s biggest high schools melted away in a jumping, hugging, shrieking mass of teenage pandemonium.

The victory Saturday night at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was the 15th for Lafayette. The only other band that has won the state championship contest since it began in 1990 was the second-place finisher, its Lexington neighbor Paul Laurence Dunbar, which has won four, including the 2007 title.

“I thought it was our best show,” said Lafayette junior Katherine Sturgill. “It felt really good. You could feel the energy on the field.”

Freshman Sarah Scott said simply: “We rocked!”

I hadn’t been to a high school band contest in 30 years, since soon after I graduated after spending three years in the Lafayette Band. I left Louisville early Sunday morning thinking I was glad I hadn’t been a judge, because I thought every band had rocked.

I spent most of the day looking through a camera viewfinder trying to capture moments, so I didn’t see the big picture. But through my long lens, I got a close-up view of the energy, musicianship and showmanship that went into each performance. Standing on the sidelines, the sound was amazing.

Lafayette’s show was loosely built around Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen. I also loved the music and choreography of Dunbar’s ninja-theme show. But each band I heard had a creative, exciting and highly polished show.

And each band had a uniformed corps of parents with ATVs and trailers to get props on and off the field, and to set up and remove the “percussion pit” down front — timpani, chimes, marimba and other special instruments. One band wheeled a harpsichord onto the field because its musical score included some Bach.

Fayette wasn’t the only county with more than one standout. Hardin County had the third- and fourth-place finishers in the largest-school division. Graves, Bourbon, Hardin, Davies, Madison, Calloway and Boyle counties had more than one band in the semifinals; Fayette had five. Tates Creek, Bryan Station and Lexington Christian didn’t advance to the finals.

Bourbon County scored a coup in its division by beating one of Kentucky’s band dynasties, Adair County. It wasn’t easy. Adair County has a terrific band, which is why it has been chosen to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in 2009. It also has a powerful cheering section. As Adair County was getting ready to take the field, I noticed a bunch of big guys front and center in the stands, yelling at the top of their lungs. Eric Graves, the head football coach, had brought his entire team to Louisville to cheer the band. At how many high schools would that happen?

“Adair County’s here, so we’re here,” said Graves, who was whistling and yelling as loud as any of them.

Aside from my alma mater, I have to say my favorite competitor Saturday was the third-place winner in the Class 2A category, Shelby Valley High School of Pike County. That band got more sound out of fewer people than I’ve ever seen.

The Shelby Valley Band had 24 people, if I counted them correctly, including a drum major and a two-person color guard. About half its members formed the drum line. There were only nine horn players, although you would have never known it, given the volume and polished musicality of their performance.

“This is the smallest we’ve ever been,” said Shelby Valley’s director, Robert Scheeler. “We got to band camp this summer and there were nine of us. So we said, what the heck, let’s make the most of it.” And they did. It’s why, like the Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament, Kentucky’s state marching band championship is special.

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