INDIANAPOLIS — “I did not think we would get here,” Whitko band director John VanPatten told his band outside a cold and windy Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday. “Not because I didn’t believe in you – trust me, I believe in you, you guys are awesome, but because I know how hard it is to get here.”

For the first time in Whitko history, the Marching Pride advanced past Indiana State School Music Association Semi-State competition to march at Lucas Oil Stadium on Nov. 4.

The odds of making the ISSMA state competition are slim, with only 40 out of the 120 or more Indiana marching bands that compete make it each year. To stack the odds against them, Whitko marched with a mere 22 members, half of whom were freshmen, and a director in his first year with the school.

After arriving at a chilly Lucas Oil Stadium, the band unloads the trailer and begins to prepare for the performance.

Despite the odds, VanPatten and his band proceeded to the furthest extent an Indiana band can go, and placed 10th at finals last weekend. VanPatten places all the credit on the kids.

“I have done so little for you, it is all on you,” he said in his pre-performance pep-talk. “I think about 65-70 percent of the band directors in Indiana could get their bands here, but only 10 in each class have the students that buy into what they’re talking about, that work so hard, that listen at the very basic level. The smallest things are what get you here. Doing these small simple things well are what gets you here, and that is all on you.”

ISSMA Semi-State is extremely competitive, with the difference between 10th and 11th places sometimes being as little as 0.01 point out of 100. The “small simple things” can indeed be the difference.

“Without you guys doing what I ask you to do, we go nowhere. That is what should be on everybody’s mind here. This is nowhere close to being about me. No. This is about you. You got yourself here. This is your accomplishment, and you need to be proud of what you have accomplished,” he said.

The band anxiously awaits the announcement of the winners at the awards ceremony, also called retreat.

Throughout the season, the band used the phrase “Why not us?” to emphasize that the size and experience level of the band does not matter. What matters is work ethic.

“There were a few sets that I really struggled getting to because of the really big steps, but I just kept trying – even cried sometimes – but I kept determined,” said Rylee Rose, a freshman snare player.

The kids took that message to heart.

“They’ve responded to everything I’ve thrown at them, and they just keep wanting more. It’s incredible,” VanPatten said. “I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been so successful, because they just keep wanting more to do.”

In the stadium

After arriving at Lucas Oil Stadium and unloading the trailer of instruments and equipment, bands march into the lower level of the stadium where they warm up bodies and instruments. From there, they proceed to a corner tunnel leading to the field.

The most heart-wrenching moment for a performer is that moment – when they walk through the tunnel and see the overwhelming stadium before them. Most directors try to prepare students for this moment, because the adrenaline rush is intense.

“You need to put one foot in front of the other and you need to get in it,” VanPatten said. “Let it be overwhelming later.”

Junior percussionist Charles Ault reflected on his excitement leading up to this moment.

“Last night, I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about how it’s going to be huge, bright, flashy, heart bursting out of your chest sort of deal. I was trying to tell myself this was a performance like any other so that I didn’t freeze or mess up. I had to keep telling myself that throughout the show,” he said.

Band members stand in the tunnel, taking in the awe of the stadium before them.

For some, it was almost overwhelming.

“My heart dropped to my stomach,” said senior flutist Hannah Sikora. “When we were standing in the opening set, I could feel my vision shifting.”

Senior Nicole Lawson echoed Sikora.

“I almost fainted. This is very tall and large and I feel very small but it was also awesome,” she said.

Despite the grand nature of the stadium, the band members kept their cool, and cheered in excitement as they marched out after their performance.

“I thought the kids did awesome,” VanPatten said after the performance. “They did a really good job. Being in that environment, they could really let the circumstances overwhelm them and they absolutely did not. They kept their heads about them.”

Senior flautists Hannah Sikora and Nicole Lawson celebrate a good performance. Sikora and Lawson shared a flute duet during the show.

After the performance, bands enjoy a cold bottle of milk before heading back onto the field for awards, a ceremony called Retreat in marching band. The bands stand side-by-side as winners are announced.

Although Whitko placed 10th out of 10 bands, VanPatten said the students have nothing to be ashamed of.

“My first rehearsal here with Whitko, I remember we were all sitting in a circle and I was talking to you about how I had looked through your scores from the last couple years and I said, ‘You were really close to [advancing to state] in music, we’re going to work hard on visuals,’ and I said in the next five years, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be marching down at finals,” he said. “I was not expecting this group to be able to do what they’re doing at the end of my first year – I was expecting that at the end of year three or four.”

At the conclusion of his pre-performance speech, VanPatten had the band repeat after him a phrase they have used to emphasize the team nature of band, “I will not let you down.”

“And you have certainly done that all year round,” he said.