Grand National championships: Victory defined

"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