‘Lessons in Self-Confidence’

Taking to the color-blocked tarp that had been rolled out on the gym floor, members of the Washington High School Winter Guard team had the attention of the entire school. And for the next 5 1/2 minutes they held it.

Dancing, leaping, tossing sabers in the air, waving flags, spinning rifles . . . all to the beat of the music, the WHS Winter Guard team gave their final performance of the season and showed all of their classmates why they received first place in the Mid-Continent Color Guard Association (MCCGA) Championships held March 24 in Springfield.

The routine was titled “Lessons in Self-Confidence,” and that’s exactly what it delivered, teammates said.

“This season was an amazing learning experience, and it helped me in ways that couldn’t have come from the reassurance of friends and family,” said Michaella Williams. “I learned about self-confidence and what it really means to be a strong, confident young woman.”

“This show has taught me and my teammates that life has its ups and downs but you have to push through, and we have found this out together,” said Olivia Sullentrup.

Madeline Heinrich added, “Winter Guard is a place for me to forget what’s going on at school or at home and just spin it out. It’s nice to have an output that I’m good at. I never fit in on other sports teams, and I was never willing to practice, but once I began Winter Guard, I practiced nearly everyday to improve on what I love.”

“The show theme ‘Lessons in Self-Confidence’ helped me regain some of my personal self-confidence,” added Kali Alexander. “It was a great season.”

No Longer a ‘Bridesmaid’

Winter Guard Coach Julie Bunkley was as excited as the students to see the team take first place.

“We’ve been in the top three for nine of the last 12 years, and the two years that we weren’t in the top three, we were fourth,” she said.

“I associate it with always being a bridesmaid and never a bride,” Bunkley remarked, with a smile.

No more.

“This was a group that never seemed satisfied with what they were doing unless it was perfect,” said Bunkley, who focuses on working with the students on their equipment technique. “They always knew they could do better. They also took advice and criticism very well and made themselves better because of it.

“They continued to learn and improve all season and never settled for just being ‘good.’ This group believed in themselves, each other and trusted their staff. They knew they had a show that was designed beautifully and would be a crowd and judges’ favorite.”

The only two seniors who have been on the team all four years said this was a special year and they feel fortunate to have been part of the team that brought WHS the gold medal for the first time.

“It felt amazing,” remarked Hannah Kitners.

“The most rewarding part,” said Josie Buhr, “was being the seniors in the group that won it and watching the team grow.”

Assistant Coach Sarah Barnett, who works with the students on their dance technique, described the learning pattern from seniors down to freshmen as “a domino effect.”

“You can see the younger ones watching and learning from the older ones and trying to emulate that,” said Barnett.

At the MCCGA championship, WHS competed against 12 other schools in Scholastic A, the highest performance division of the sport.

Over 80 high schools and middle schools from a seven-state area (Missouri, Kansas, Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Iowa) took part in the event.

Color Guard’s Cold Season Cousin

If you’re not familiar with Winter Guard or even ever heard its name, Bunkley isn’t surprised. The sport doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of its own competitions.

In fact, until a few years ago when the team began performing its routine at all-school assemblies, there were a lot of students and teachers at WHS who didn’t know exactly what it was, said Bunkley.

Basically, Winter Guard is the same activity as Color Guard, only it is performed to recorded music and speeches instead of live band music, and it’s held indoors on a gym floor rather than outside on grass.

The season runs mid- to late-November through the beginning of April.

Like Color Guard, Winter Guard is a band activity. All of the team members are in the band Color Guard and sign up for Winter Guard as a way to keep up their skills during the off-season, explained Bunkley.

This year’s WHS Winter Guard included 15 members, all girls. Since the guard was organized 12 years ago, it has always been an all-girl team, said Bunkley, although guys are allowed to join and, in fact, other school guards do have them.

In previous years the WHS Winter Guard has had as many as 24 members, although when the size is that large, the guard is divided into varsity and junior varsity, said Bunkley.

Although it doesn’t have the appearance of traditional sports, Bunkley said Winter Guard is extremely athletic and demands a good amount of discipline and training.

“It’s called a sport of the arts,” said Bunkley. “It’s very artistic . . . These girls are tossing 2 1/2-plus-pound rifles in the air, dancing under them and then catching them perfectly.

“There’s even a little bit of theater in their routine. It’s a mixed bag.”

Not only is there skill involved in tossing the rifle or saber just the right height in the air and at the same speed each time, there is training in getting all of the team members to do it in unison.

And just as other sports require players to have stamina to be able to stay in the game, Winter Guard is the same, although you’d never know it to watch them perform. They make it look natural and effortless.

That’s a result of consistent training, said Bunkley.

Buhr said for her, the routine seems to go by fast.

“It doesn’t feel even close to five minutes,” she remarked. “I’m just out there having fun.”

The Guard members perform the routine barefoot with only the tarp providing any comfort between their feet and the hard gym floor. There have been occasions where the members drop or miss catching a rifle and it lands on their foot.

Work Begins in Summer

Mastering the tossing and catching skills seen throughout the Winter Guard routines begins with learning a basic technique and building on that, said Bunkley.

“These students work on the basics all summer long to be ready for fall,” she said.

The Winter Guard, which is mostly student-funded, hires a professional choreographer, Richard Kim from New Jersey, to create the routine. He selects the music and choreographs the entire show, including the design painted on the tarp that covers the floor.

He comes to Washington each summer to spend a week teaching the guard the show for fall marching band, then comes back for a weekend in December and in January to teach the Winter Guard show.

Throughout the season, Bunkley, Barnett and Guard assistants Jenny Buhr and Chad Griefe work on cleaning and tweaking the show if something isn’t working. They may even rewrite things or add a drill if needed.

This year’s routine, “Lessons in Self-Confidence,” was performed to a mash-up of three songs, “Firework” by Katy Perry, “Who You Are” by Jessie J and “Perfect” by Pink.

The costumes were simple dresses that the coaches purchased through JCPenney. The girls wore leotards and nude footless tights underneath.

The floor tarp was painted by members of the Guard. This year’s design was a simple color block pattern, but in years past, it has been more intricate.

“In 2007 we did the Eiffel Tower,” Bunkley noted.

The tarp is reused year after year and simply painted new each season to match the show concept and color design.

This year they also were able to reuse flags from a previous year.

At competitions, the Winter Guard routines are judged in five categories: dance, spinning/working equipment, general effect, ensemble (which includes costumes and floor design) and timing/penalty.

There are multiple judges watching the routine for each of these areas, Bunkley noted.

That makes it hard to get away with making any mistakes, Kitner and Buhr said, but it also means the right judge has to be looking at the right Guard member to see any minor flubs.

“You just try to recover as quickly as you can and smooth over any mistake,” they said.

Both Kitner and Buhr said are considering staying active with Winter Guard while they’re in college. Both have already been recruited by Avidity, an independent Winter Guard group, and the guard director from Missouri State University in Springfield has asked about their college plans.

Performing their gold-medal routine for the last time in front of all of their classmates at a spring sports assembly earlier this month was bittersweet the girls said. But the applause the school gave them at the end was gratifying.

“It’s kind of cool to know that you can do something this special, and that the whole school can appreciate what we do,” said Kitner.