Trumpets, trombones, drums and cowbells reached beyond the building’s large waterfront parking lot. Upon approaching the B.J. McGillis Gymnasium — a repurposed World War II airplane hangar on the campus on Mt. Edgecumbe High School — they made their presence known.
The first thing that welcomed fans to the Region V 2A/3A/4A Basketball Tournament last week in Sitka weren’t basketball teams — it was the pep bands.
“I’ve been all around the country, I’ve been to different high school and college tournaments,” Thunder Mountain High School senior tambourinist and saxophonist Kaili DeMello said. “I got to say Alaska is probably one of the absolute best.”
Every March, high school pep bands travel with their respective boys and girls basketball teams to the Region V Tournament. The pep bands are part and parcel of the March event, providing the soundtrack to the hardwood drama that comes when 20 teams assemble for five days and 30 games.
“If you step out of the gym at Juneau the only thing that you can hear is the guitar and the bass,” DeMello said. “But if you step out here I was hearing trumpets, I was hearing trombones, saxophones and the drumline and bass and guitar. I was hearing all of that.”
It’s DeMello’s first time playing in the cavernous hangar. When DeMello and the others sit on the far end of the gymnasium, several hundred feet away from playing surface, it still feels as if they’re in the middle of the action.
“The bass and the guitar, the drums, they don’t overtake the rest of the sound because we’re all playing in this big space so we all echo,” she said. “It’s not just the people in the front lines like it is in Juneau that take over everything.”
TMHS consistently brings one of the largest masses of music makers, outnumbering its varsity basketball team approximately four-to-one.
Rose Rice is a Thunder Mountain senior captain of the pep band. Rice has traveled to region tournaments every year beginning as a freshman. She and the rest of the team stepped in for Metlakatla when the small Annette Island school didn’t have a band last year.
“All their family came over to Ketchikan from Metlakatla and they were super excited and happy that a 4A team was playing for their pep band,” Rice said. “They were beyond excited about it.”
Brian Van Kirk advises the Falcon pep band. He said the region tournament is about the relationships made between teams of different schools. Southeast Alaska’s size and roadless geography forces teams to remain in town for the entire tournament while staying in the local students’ homes.
“You create those long-term friendships and that community inside of Southeast,” Van Kirk said. “There’s a certain level of competition I guess with the pep bands but it’s a different, healthy kind of competition. It’s not, ‘We’re going to do better than you.’ You celebrate each other when you have a really cool song.”
Like the communities they represent, every pep band has its own style.
“Looking at Sitka’s (pep band) they have more of a marching band-style,” Rice said. “We have the more edgy, rock band-style, but we make it more exciting than just a rock band. It’s a pep band, but it’s not like a marching band and it’s not like a rock band. It’s in between the two.”