On Sept. 5, when enrollment is finalized, Western Carolina University expects to announce record-breaking enrollment for the fifth year out of the last six. The university also anticipates being able to officially report growth of more than 20 percent in the last decade, a trend completely counter to enrollment declines happening across the country. In our series, WCU Thrives, we explore some of the programs and people that have played a role in this incredible momentum.
Today, we highlight one of Western Carolina’s most popular extracurricular activities, and one that draws students from across the Southeast: the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band.
As the second quarter winds to a close during a fall football Saturday in Cullowhee, fans remain glued to their seats. This is no time for a restroom break or a hot dog. In fact, some in line at the concession stand give up their spot to return to their seats. Why? Because the main event is about to begin – the halftime performance by Western Carolina University’s nationally acclaimed Pride of the Mountains Marching Band.
The band rolls out a two-deck stage housing amps and electronics as more than 450 musicians, plus dancers and color guard members, march in perfect unison into position, filling the field from goal line to goal line. The drum major and two secondary conductors step onto platforms on the sideline. Hands and instruments go up, and as batons come down, the sound fills the stadium. Applause erupts.
At WCU, the marching band is revered by students and alumni alike, and in the last decade its fame has spread far beyond campus as it has earned national acclaim.
In 2009, the Pride of the Mountains was awarded the prestigious Sudler Trophy, which has been called the “Heisman Trophy” of the collegiate marching band world. It was the first institution in the state of North Carolina and the first member of the Southern Conference ever selected for the award.
That was the beginning of a series of national feats for WCU’s marching band. In 2011, the band marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade, held annually on New Year’s Day in conjunction with the Rose Bowl college football game. In 2014, the Pride of the Mountains got the call to participate in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. The band led the nationally televised parade event that holiday season. In 2015, the drumline, Purple Thunder, played at halftime of the Carolina Panthers home opener.
The result of all this attention has been a clamoring by high-performing high school band students across the Southeast to be a part of the Pride of the Mountains. In 2009, the band was 360 strong. This fall, the Pride of the Mountains boasts 485 members, and has been as high as 505 members when the band marched in the Macy’s Parade. Nearly 10 percent of WCU’s freshman class will march in the band this fall.
Marching Band director David Starnes, who joined WCU in 2011 to step into the shoes of long-time leader Bob Buckner, said the success of the band is all about the incredible quality of student the program is able to attract.
“If we didn’t possess that kind of student, the pressure of the national spotlight and the level of these performances could be incredibly intimidating,” Starnes said. “But our student membership really has a feel for that. They work for that kind of attention and put in the effort to be even better.”
Starnes said the band draws from seven states – Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maine, Tennessee, West Virginia and Georgia.
To keep up with the increasing demands for individual and group improvement, the Pride has a new home for rehearsals, housed on the south baseball lot. There’s a new tower, new parking lot, storage and a measured field for drills.
“It is truly a state-of-the-art facility,” Starnes said. “When returning students saw it for the first time, it was ‘Wow!’ It shows that WCU appreciates the band as an integral part of the university and recruitment figures,” he said.
In addition to half-time shows and national performances, the Pride of the Mountains do a great deal of community outreach through workshops and appearances. In coming months, the band will have major performances in front of high school audiences during a road trip to South Carolina, with stops in Charleston and Columbia for the state marching band competition. The Pride will be the special guest band at the 43rd annual Land of Sky high school marching bands festival at Enka High School, Saturday, Sept. 30.
Then on Oct. 21, WCU will host the 17th annual Tournament of Champions, with 25 of the top high school marching bands from four states coming to E.J. Whitmire Stadium. Bands will be competing for the prestigious Chancellor’s Award, a large glass traveling trophy that is presented to the grand champion, while the highest-scoring band from a North Carolina high school receives the “Roll of Honour” award.
For more information on Pride of the Mountains, visit the website or call 828-227-2259.