Members of the Washington High School Varsity Winter Guard are feeling on top of the world right now, and in a way, they literally are.
Earlier this month the team finished 13th at the Winter Guard International World Championships held April 3-4 in Dayton, Ohio, where teams from across the United States, Canada and Europe competed.
It was the first time the WHS team had made the finals at the WGI world championships, “an accomplishment we have been working toward for years,” said Julie Bunkley, who coaches the team along with Sara Barnett.
Even before the WHS Varsity Winter Guard team left for the WGI world championships, the team had placed first in its other competition circuit, the Mid-Continent Color Guard Association (MCCGA) Championships (scholastic A class), for the third year in a row. In that circuit, the WHS varsity team went undefeated this season.
The WHS Junior Varsity Winter Guard also had a stellar year, finishing third in MCCGA’s scholastic B class after starting the season in the lower scholastic C class.
And the WHS Drum Line finished in fourth place at the MCCGA championships.
The MCCGA circuit includes schools across Missouri and parts of surrounding states.
There are more than 100 schools in MCCGA, including winter guard and percussion units.
In the scholastic A class there are around 30 guards, said Bunkley. There is only one higher class, Scholastic open, which the WHS winter guard is on the cusp of joining, she noted.
Color Guard’s Cold Season Cousin
If you’re not familiar with winter guard, Bunkley isn’t surprised. The sport doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of its own competitions.
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 team performs a choreographed routine that combines dancing with tossing flags, rifles and sabers. They do this barefoot with only a tarp providing any comfort between their feet and the hard gym floor. There have been occasions where a member drops or misses catching a rifle and it lands on a foot.
Although it doesn’t have the appearance of traditional sports, 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.”
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.
The winter guard 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, who works with the members on their equipment technique, while Barnett works with them on their dancing.
Both women teach at South Point Elementary School, where Bunkley is a second-grade teacher, and Barnett is a first-grade teacher.
To get into winter guard, there are auditions for the varsity team. It helps if they have had dance and if they have spun a saber or rifle before. They’ve all done flags in color guard.
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.
WHS added a winter guard team in 2001 as a way to keep the color guard members sharp in the off season. Bunkley and Barnett have been the coaches since the beginning.
The winter guard team size can vary anywhere from five to 30 members. Buckley said she likes around 14 because they are easier to watch and also accountable. They can’t hide.
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 varsity winter guard routine, “Minimalism Maximized,” was performed to the song “Experience” by Ludovico Einaudi.
“The idea was using the bare minimum, but taking it to the max,” said Bunkley, explaining that the routine started out with very simple music, one cello playing, and it kept building.
The floor tarp was plain beige with a few colored triangles.
“It was about playing with those triangles and the kids in the triangles, and just interacting with each other and building as the whole show went on,” said Bunkley.
In years past, the tarp has been more intricate. In 2007, for example, it featured the Eiffel Tower.
Each tarp is used for two, sometimes three seasons, using one side each year and possibly painting over one design for a third year.
The costumes were simple black leotards that the members had used in fall for Color Guard, but modified to fit the winter theme.
“It really is just a black leotard . . . but then taken to the max with the swirl of silver going through and a hint of pink skirt,” said Bunkley. “It worked really well for this.”
Early on, both Bunkley and Barnett said they knew this routine was special and felt it would be a strong contender at competitions.
“I knew from the first get-together in December . . . this would be very special,” said Barnett.
“It really did stand out,” Bunkley remarked. “It was different from every other show out there.”
“It’s very fast, but at the same time there are slow parts,” added Barnett. “There are opposites going constantly.”
Dedication Made the Difference
In the MCCGA circuit, the varsity winter guard competed in three local shows — in Eureka, Mascoutah, Ill., and at Francis Howell North, plus the championships held in Springfield.
The WGI circuit, which holds competitions all over the United States and parts of Europe, held two regional competitions in St. Louis and Kansas City, and WHS attended both.
The team won in St. Louis against 24 other guards from as far away as New York and Chicago, and in Kansas City, which pulled in guards from Texas and Colorado, the team finished second.
That was the only competition the team didn’t win before the World Championships.
The World Championships began with a preliminary round of competition followed by a second round to determine which teams would compete in the finals.
Of the 125 guard units that began the competition, only 48 advanced to the second round and only 15 to the finals, including the WHS team.
“It’s huge to be able to stand out against, when you put 125 groups together, you have to have something that makes you stand out, and I think it was these kids and the show that Rich designed for them,” said Bunkley.
Many of the other guards that made it to the finals had been there before, Barnett noted. And the group that won is actually a dance team that dances together year-round and for winter guard is trained on equipment.
“The WHS team is not a dance team,” Barnett said. “A few may have had dance when they were younger but they haven’t done it for years.
“That’s what amazes me every time,” she said. “They just want to do it.”
Bunkley also pointed out that some of the other teams that made it to the world finals take a color guard class during the school day, on top of all their practices, Bunkley noted. The WHS team does not.
The WHS team practices extensively. At the start of the season, before they learn the routine, the team practices just twice a week after school for 1 1/2 hours each. By January, however, they are practicing three days a week, one day 1 1/2 hours and two days for 2 1/2 hours each. Plus they have camps on the weekend.
And on top of all of that, this year’s team spent even more of their free time practicing on their own, said Bunkley.
“The kids this year were really motivated,” she commented. “They were always practicing in the band room. Varsity, junior varsity and drum line, they all were motivated.”
“That’s what made a big difference,” added Barnett. “They did practice on their own, not just at our rehearsals. This year, most of them all came in before school, found a spot where they could spin, even on the snow days when we couldn’t get in to the school, they were finding churches where they could practice.
“That’s what we have to bring in to the next year and keep it going,” said Barnett. “That’s one of the biggest reasons why we did so well this year.”
Junior Varsity Routine
The junior varsity color guard routine was performed to the classical song “Clair de Lune.”
The JV show featured a tree on the tarp, and the guard members were lying down on the branches like leaves. At the end, they all end up at the bottom like all of the leaves fell off the tree.
The JV winter guard, of which more than half of the members were new this year, began the season in scholastic C, the lowest class, but after its first performance was promoted by the MCCGA circuit to scholastic B.
Then they continued to work hard and finished the season with a third-place medal in that class.
“That’s a huge accomplishment,” said Bunkley.
Drum Line Makes a ‘Ding’
The WHS Drum Line, which is a team of band students who play percussion instruments as they march and move in a choreographed routine, also competes in the MCCGA circuit.
Like the winter guard teams, drum line performs on a tarp that has been painted to match the routine’s theme. In drum line, however, only some of the students move around on the tarp.
Those playing snare drums, tenor drums, bass drums and crash cymbols move around, said WHS band director and drum line coach Troy Bunkley, but the front ensemble, featuring xylophones, marimbas, vibraphones, bells, chimes, whistles, keyboard . . . , are stationary.
This year’s routine, “Ding,” was both fun and challenging, said Troy Bunkley. The theme was bells and the different colors/sounds they make.
“We also took all of the tunes that have bell in the title — ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Ring My Bell’ — anything that had a bell reference or bell in the title, we tried to stick snippets of that in, as many references we could stick in that didn’t make it too quirky,” said Troy Bunkley.
“This was probably the most complex and challenging for them playing wise, so their playing level was continuing to increase and improve,” he said.
The routine was written and choreographed by Damon Van, a percussion instructor/adjunct faculty at East Central College. He prepared the students and helped write drill, said Troy Bunkley.
The tarp featured the outline of a bell in the center with lines of rainbow colors representing the sound coming off the bell.
Each bell tone has its own color, Troy Bunkley explained.
Like winter guard, drumline wears a costume, although it’s more casual. This year the team wore blue jeans and brightly colored hoodies, again to represent the rainbow colors of the sounds of the bell.
This year the WHS drumline attended four MCCGA competitions, plus the championship. Competing in scholastic B class, the WHS drum line went into the championships ranked first and finished in fourth place.
“It’s exciting to see the growth in the program,” said Bunkley. “And to have a model of the winter guards really makes the drummers want to work even more.
“I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished,” he remarked.
The WHS drum line, which only began five years ago, is becoming more popular with students, and Bunkley said the goal is to be able to take the team to the WGI world championships.
This year’s team included 24 students, a mix of boys and girls from all classes, including five seniors. Audition for drum line are held in November.
“We try to take everybody, but sometimes there are too many depending on the arrangement for the line,” said Troy Bunkley.
‘Who’s Going to Step Up?’
Looking ahead to next year’s winter guard season, Bunkley and Barnett said it will be hard to replace the six seniors who were on the team this season.
While some coaches might call next season a rebuilding year because of that, Julie Bunkley and Barnett have a different perspective. They call it a “who’s going to step up?” year.
It’s a way to let the members of the team know they have confidence in their ability.
“We don’t want them going in with that mentality, ‘Oh, well, if it’s a building year, that means we’re not going to be successful,’ ” said Bunkley. “Three years ago we had a winter guard that was 14 members and eight were seniors, and that next year that we were still really successful. We only had two seniors, and we really weren’t expecting that.
“We do have other strong classes coming up, but these seniors will be hard to replace,” Bunkley admitted. “They are a very talented bunch.”
Still, the remaining team members have the passion and commitment, the coaches said.
“In Dayton, we noticed a lot of our members all spent their own money to buy new equipment — sabers and rifles — from the vendors,” said Julie Bunkley.
“And those aren’t cheap, so that shows commitment.”
Troy Bunkley pointed out there is one more group that deserves recognition after a successful season like this one.
“We really appreciate the support of the Washington Band Boosters and the parents,” he stressed. “This doesn’t happen without them.
“They really make this happen, financially and logistically.”