West Deptford drum major Michelle Cullen stood on the windswept sideline at Hersheypark Stadium early Sunday afternoon, listening as band name after band name was announced.
After 15 scores were read off, it was down to the final two: Camp Hill and the Marching Eagles.
When the voice over the loudspeaker intoned Camp Hill as the runner-up, Cullen burst into tears of joy–West Deptford had done it; reclaimed their Atlantic Coast Championship (ACC) Group 3 Open crown and put an exclamation point on another stellar season.
“It was a rush of emotions,” she said, still grinning hours after claiming the massive plaque and banner that go to the winners. “Everything good, all in one.”
The Eagles repeated as Tournament of Bands Group 3 Open champions, a year after winning the school’s first-ever overall title, in dominant fashion, scoring 96.55 to beat out runner-up Camp Hill by more than a full point.
The band also beat out Brick Memorial, which had moved up to Group 3 Open after winning three straight Group 2 Open ACC titles, and Mechanicsburg, which had won five straight Group 3 Open titles before the Eagles won their first last year.
Besides the overall title, the Marching Eagles took home the Best Music and Best Visual trophies for the second straight year, as well as Best Brass.
Even before the season started, band members were confident in their chances to repeat at ACCs. Cullen didn’t hesitate back in August in predicting a second title, and though there were some moments of doubt through the season, she always thought there was a chance.
For the newcomers to the band, stepping on to the turf at Hersheypark Stadium was an eye-opening experience.
Freshman Cara Spector knew the level of competition was going to be in the stratosphere, and said being out on the field with the best bands in the group was intimidating.
“I was scared, because I didn’t really know what to expect,” she said.
Fellow freshman Brianna Fisher said after pep talks and inspiration speeches, the nerves were not problem.
“I was more pumped about it than I was nervous,” she said.
Spector had actually quit the band early on after feeling overwhelmed, but was drawn back in after getting a long email from a fellow band member. She said her experience through the year made it worth returning.
“I’m really happy I came back,” Spector said.
The repeat ACC title capped off an undefeated season for the band, which was the top-ranked band in their group from the outset. It comes on top of their sixth straight Chapter 1 championship, which they won last weekend at Clearview.
Band director Thomas Kershaw said having a solid nucleus was key to the band being able to perform at a high level and win two years in a row, after never scoring an ACC championship before, especially against tough competition.
“We were lucky to have the people who knew how to get it done last year lead it this year,” Kershaw said. “The kids only accept a certain level now, and they push each other to get there.”
Kershaw also credited his staff and the band parents, who even managed to get the band a practice session inside the grand ballroom at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Saturday morning, after the band was snowed out of a session on the turf at Gateway High School.
“The parents do that all the time,” Kershaw said. “If there’s a need, the network gets on the phone” and delivers every time.
And thanks to those same parents and other supporters, Kershaw said it was practically a home crowd at Hershey, as about 250 West Deptford boosters erupted into cheers as the Marching Eagles emerged from behind the stadium stage and stepped on to the turf for their final shot in competition.
Those same parents were there at the high school as the band's charter buses rolled in against the fading sherberts of sunset, raising a caucophony of car horns and cheering in the parking lot.
Looking back at the season, one thing ultimately gave the band its edge, Cullen said, and made the hours of rehearsal and sacrifice worthwhile.
“We drew our audience in,” she said. “You’re going to live our show, you’re not just going to watch it. You experience it with us.”
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