It was halftime all the time Saturday as marching bands from Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties gathered at River Ridge High School stadium to fight their "pregame" jitters and face the judges at the District Five 2001 Florida Band Master Association Marching Music Performance Assessment.
In a five-hour marathon of performances, kids from 15 high schools and one middle school took to the football field to give it their all and hope for the best.
A panel of six judges scrutinized each and every move, doling out ratings in music, marching and maneuvering, auxiliary, color guard, and percussion.
"It's one of two of the biggest events we do in the state of Florida." said Bill Rutherford, band director for Gulf High School. "It's a culmination of all our work _ what should be our best performance. It's the end of our marching band season. It's what the kids look forward to: an evening for the bands to shine."
The community also gets to see the hard work that's going on in their schools, said River Ridge Middle School band director Travis Henry, who also serves as district chairman and who organized this year's event.
Saturday was, no doubt, a long day for many. Some bands marched onto the field when the late afternoon sun still warmed the long rows of metal bleachers. Others got their 10-minute shot after twilight was long gone, the autumn air so brisk you could see your breath.
"This thing commands so much energy, it's hard to believe," said Marching Rams oboe player Alex Ramos as she hung out with other band members who were waiting their turn in the stands.
"It's nerve-wracking with all the judges and everything," said Ridgewood flute player Michelle Sharpe.
Band members, who had worked at it since band camp started in July, wanted the highest honor, a superior rating. But that doesn't pan out for everyone. Judges can be fickle. Nerves can get the best of even the most seasoned marcher or flag twirler. Disappointment, for some, is inevitable.
Still, the crowd is a constant and always more forgiving at these events.
These are the fans who don't head for the concession stands during halftime. Many have been listening since those first squeaky sounds blew out a mangled version of Hot Cross Buns way back when. Some have footed the bill for private lessons, joined the boosters, raised money for equipment and trips, and done their share of chauffeuring. So, of course, they stay glued to their seats, swelling with pride and rooting their players on.
Take 63-year-old Jim Turner. He cheered for each band with equal fervor.
"All right," he whooped loudly, as the Hudson High School Cobras finished their disco set. He was up on his feet for Hernando High's Mickey Mouse themed show, Ridgewood's version of Stairway to Heaven, and again, for Gulf and the rest.
A Florida State Seminole fan, Turner said he passed on a free ticket to this past Saturday's homecoming game to watch his granddaughter, Jennifer Melrose, a River Ridge High School mellophone player whose band would close the night's performance at 9:30 p.m.
"I love football. I bleed garnet and gold," said Turner. "But I wouldn't miss this for the world. This is marvelous."
There are mothers such as Nancy Carpenter, who anxiously awaited word of Wesley Chapel High's ratings with her daughter, Michelle Roth, a member of the color guard, who had performed earlier in the day.
"The waiting's the hardest part," said Michelle, her face sprinkled with silver glitter and her hair pulled back in neat French braids tied with silver bows. "I have no idea how we did," she said while her mother patted her back. "But I'm pretty sure we'll do good."
Band directors who must stay silent and off the field while their bands perform are prone to doing their share of gloating.
"This is the best performance I've seen them do in five years. I've waited for this," said Pasco High's band director, Michael Wickersheim. "I'm so proud of them. They just took the ball and ran with it."
Without fail, some alumni show up to remember when. Nikki Brown was last year's drum major for River Ridge High. During her marching days, she also took her turn at the flute, trombone and the piccolo. Now a Florida State freshman, she made the four-hour trek home from Tallahassee for nostalgia's sake. "I miss it," said Brown, proudly donning her River Ridge High School letter jacket. "I miss marching out there. It's always cold on your face, and your feet are always wet. You look up and you're scared to death. And then you start and you forget about everything."
Marching Band Music Performance Assessment Overall Results: Pasco County: Gulf High: superior; Hudson High: excellent; Land O'Lakes High: excellent; Mitchell High: excellent; Pasco High: excellent; Ridgewood High: excellent; River Ridge High: superior; Wesley Chapel High: excellent; Zephyrhills High: excellent. Citrus County: Citrus High: superior; Crystal River High: excellent; Lecanto High: excellent. Hernando County: Central High: good; Hernando High: excellent; Parrot Middle: superior, Springstead High: superior.