Nature Coast Technical High School football players sprinted onto the field from beneath a giant, inflatable light blue-and-black helmet to the sound of the University of Oklahoma's fight song, Boomer Sooner.
Cheerleaders launched tumbling runs near the 50-yard line.
A typical high school football game on a clear, cool Friday night — except for one detail:
The music came not from students in brightly colored band uniforms, but from two boxy, black speakers mounted above a chain-link fence near the track.
"Every time I come to a game, it's all I talk about," said Heather Fowlds, 41, of Spring Hill, who sat in the stands watching her daughter, Ryleigh, a cheerleader.
"It's ridiculous that they don't have a band."
It's also unusual.
Of the 61 public high schools in the Tampa Bay area, the only two without band programs are in Hernando County: Central High School, which eliminated its program earlier this year, and Nature Coast, which dropped band in 2012.
Because of these cuts and the near elimination of the band at Parrott Middle School earlier this year, the school district has formed a task force to recommend ways to revive band and other music programs in Hernando.
Good thing, say band advocates, because along with creating a lively atmosphere at football games, band is tied to higher academic achievement. It can create a lifelong appreciation for music and a sense of belonging in big public schools.
"It doesn't matter if kids are short or tall, skinny or fat. They don't have to be fast. They don't have to have great hands," said Russell Schmidt, the band director at Zephyrhills High School in Pasco County.
"In band, everybody participates."
• • •
Hearing about the struggles of band programs in Hernando is especially painful to Steve Manuel, who was Hernando High School's band director in the 1970s and early 1980s, when his program was an example of what band could mean to a school and a community.
The Golden Band from Leopard Land marched around the state and the country — in the Cotton Bowl parade, at halftime of a New Orleans Saints football game in the then-new Superdome, and, in 1977, at President Jimmy Carter's inauguration parade.
The bands of that era contained about 275 members, or 20 percent of the student body.
"Walter Cronkite even mentioned that fact in the parade coverage," said Manuel, now the general manager at WWJB Radio in Brooksville.
He describes the same benefits as current band directors.
Band gives indifferent students a reason to stay in school and more committed ones skills to achieve. One study cited on the Florida Music Educators Association website shows that music students average as much as 61 points higher on some sections of the SAT tests than their non-musical peers.
Students who attend band camp before their freshman year make friendships that carry them through four years of high school. They learn teamwork and discipline, which is easier to enforce the more respected the band becomes, said Brooksville City Council member Lara Bradburn, a former band member who graduated from Hernando High in 1981.
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Students didn't want to lose their place in an "institution that was crucial to the life of the community," Bradburn said.
"You had Wednesday night church, Sunday church and Monday night band practice," she said. "And, of course, Friday nights were the games."
• • •
Contrast that with recent years at Central and Nature Coast. The schools didn't cut their programs simply because of a lack of money. It was a combination of tight budgets and too few band members to justify the expense of a full-time band teacher and director.
"We were carrying 20 to 25 (band members) max for, I believe, three years in a row," said Central principal John Stratton. "It became about sustainability."
The reason for declining interest can be placed solely on high-stakes academic testing, said Joe Harrin, Hernando High's band director, who led the charge to save the program at Parrott.
Testing has required schools to spend more money and class time on core subjects, leaving less of both for band and other arts.
That's definitely a factor, according to arts advocates across Florida. But it's a statewide explanation for what seems to be mostly a local problem.
Statistics from around the region and state show no definite drop-off in band participation. In Hernando, on the other hand, enrollment in band classes dropped from 882 in 2010-11 school year, to a low of 767 two years later — figures that do not include the additional losses that came with cutting band at Nature Coast.
That's one reason why the task force will focus on local factors for reduced participation, said Jamie Young, the district's executive director of teaching, learning and technology.
"We have to look at this districtwide," she said.
• • •
The district already has acted on some of the task force's recommendations — allowing students at Central and Nature Coast to transfer to schools that offer band and distributing those schools' instruments to active band programs.
And though it will not make a final report to superintendent Lori Romano for several weeks, said Young, a task force member, it has identified several paths for improvement.
The most important is restoring music instruction at the district's elementary schools. Five of them had no music teachers at the end of last year; four of them still don't. Time also should be set aside to allow elementary students to watch performances of middle school and high school bands to give young students a taste of the activity.
Another need is an advocate for the arts at the district level, a task that has been added to Young's duties.
Such support helps attract qualified band directors who are willing to make a commitment to the community.
Rick Dasher, for example, has served as Springstead High School's band director since 1989. The band is largest in the county and in 2012 won the state championship for 2A schools.
"Success tends to build on itself," Dasher said. "And consistency at the director level is huge."
• • •
Nature Coast sophomores Matthew Houston and Anna Phillips can only imagine what it must be like to attend a school with a successful band program.
They stood near the concession stand during halftime of the game last month as a dozen or so members of the school's dance team performed to the recorded sounds of Queen, M.C. Hammer and D.J. Khaled.
Last year, they said, the handful of members of their school's band club performed at halftime with the band from Powell Middle School.
"We had, like, 12-year-olds playing music for us," Phillips said. "It was pretty sad."
Dan DeWitt can be reached at (352) 754-6116 or email@example.com.