As midnight Friday approaches, the Marian Catholic High School marching band gathers in an Indiana middle school gym and their director prepares to tell them what the impending battle is really about.
"If you're going to try to win tomorrow, you should put your horns down and go home," says Greg Bimm, 57, Marian's longtime band director.
"The (trophy) cup is actually empty when you look at it," he says. "Your quest needs to be: How well can you perform tomorrow -- is there another level?"
This has been Bimm's mantra for decades: The kids' biggest adversaries are not their opponents on the field but their own expectations of themselves. Push yourself past what you believe is possible, and anything can happen; merely compete for points from sometimes fickle judges, and you're doomed to let others define your achievements and your identity.
Paradoxically, that forget-the-trophies attitude has made Marian Catholic's marching band the biggest award-winner in America, with seven Grand National Championships and hundreds of other plaques and citations.
But because Marian hasn't taken the top honor since 2000, some in the increasingly competitive marching-band world have begun to wonder if its moment has passed, the laurels shifting to bigger schools with fatter budgets and greater resources. Even the Marian students have started to question whether they can be compared with the illustrious Marian bands that preceded them.
"Past classes have been saying to us, 'We're worried about you,' " says senior Kathryn Wolske, 17, a hard-driving musician who leads the clarinet section. "We hear that a lot."
In a few hours, Wolske and her 240-plus colleagues in the band will find out if they're still contenders.
A grueling seasonThe long months of practice and the recent weeks of competitions have worn down this band, physically and emotionally, but sharpened it, also. Despite a record number of sicknesses and injuries, the ensemble has started to gain control of the extraordinarily complex show that Bimm and his small staff have written for it.
Unlike many marching-band extravaganzas, this piece is not an orgy of geometric patterns or razzle-dazzle effects. Instead, "The Nightingale: A Parable of Gilded Cages" unfolds gently, as a poetic narrative about a geisha liberating herself from rigid social confinement. Its balletic intricacies -- which Bimm constantly has been reworking -- have challenged these students at every turn.
As the band queues up to enter Lucas Oil Stadium in downtown Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon -- the students dressed in their sleek black and gold uniforms, the color guard wrapped in red kimono-style robes -- everyone realizes how much is at stake.
"It's the climax of our whole year," says Diamond Murphy, 17, the band's charismatic head drum major. "Everything we've worked so hard for comes down to this."
The students are fighting personal battles as well. Freshman bass clarinetist Lauren Jurek, 14, for instance, lost her father last year.
"I want to make this performance the best I can because I'm dedicating it to my dad. ... We were close, and he would have been so proud of me," she says.
After reciting the Lord's Prayer in the cavernous tunnels inside the stadium, Marian Catholic strides on to the field and begins to perform "The Nightingale," plunging into the show with dramatic flourish. The group looks transformed from the one that placed fourth in the regional competition a week ago and won the state championship the week before.
For the first time, "The Nightingale" emerges as a cohesive work of art, and when the band members convene in the parking lot outside the stadium after the performance, many are in tears as they gather around Bimm and assistant director Bobby Lambert.
"You found an amazing inner beauty today that I will be very sad if you ever lose," Lambert says to the students.
"We needed that performance so bad," says Darius Lang, 16, a formidable tuba player.
On the way back to Center Grove Middle School Central in Greenwood, Ind., where the band is bunking (hotels are too expensive), 16-year-old clarinet player Easlyn Edwards rejoices: "We don't strive for perfection, we strive for excellence, and, baby, we achieved it."
Moment of dangerIndeed, Marian Catholic has made it into the finals, which means it ranks among the 12 best high school marching bands in the nation.
But then something happens. Many of the youngsters are erupting into barely controlled exuberance. Some dye their hair green, prematurely celebrating, considering that the finals will occur in just a few hours, on Saturday night.
Though they calm down for a candle-lit prayer service, they're fairly frenetic by the time they return to Lucas Oil Stadium, and band director Bimm chastises them.
"If you take your eye off the ball now, this show is going to bite you on the backside," he snarls.
Finally, the band pipes down and turns in yet another stunning performance for the finals. The glory of this achievement -- back-to-back shows at the band's highest artistic level yet -- makes the judges' forthcoming rankings seem beside the point, or at least anti-climactic.
"It was stellar," Bimm tells the group back out on the parking lot, high praise from a man who delivers it sparingly.
Pushing past limitationsAs midnight Saturday approaches, all 12 bands gather on the field inside Lucas Oil Stadium, and the announcer begins a countdown.
Twelfth place, 11th, 10th, ninth, eighth, seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth -- Marian's name hasn't come up yet. But Marian has tied with Avon High School, of Avon, Ind., for the outstanding visual performance award (Avon also tied with L.D. Bell High School, of Hurst, Texas, for the outstanding general effect award).
When the last three names are read, Marian and L.D. Bell have achieved identical scores: 95.25, an exalted figure. But the rules stipulate that in case of a tie, the band that scores highest in "general effect" gets the higher berth, which means L.D. Bell takes second and Marian places third. Avon wins first, with a score of 96.6.
Back at the middle school, Bimm addresses the students, who have achieved Marian's highest placement since it last won, in 2000. True to form, Bimm says he looked up the word "win" in the dictionary and found the definition he wants the teenagers to remember: "To get possession of something by effort."
The students realize that definition fits them as snugly as the caps they wear on the field.
Winning, says senior Joe Johnson, 17, "is pushing past prior limitations."
By that criteria, the Marian Catholic band has won big -- and knows it.
Marching to glory