As their bus neared home last weekend, the Cheney High School band members were singing out the tunes they’d performed in a big festival in Everett.
“It’s a tradition,” said Kylie Mitchell, senior drum major. “We’re kind of nerdy that way.”
Suddenly they were passed by fire trucks and police escorts. “I was a little confused,” Mitchell said.
Then it hit them. Cheney was giving them a hero’s welcome, and it only got better when they were greeted by family, friends and everyone else.
“It was for us, and it was pretty cool,” Mitchell said.
And well-deserved. The night before, Cheney had marched to first place in the Puget Sound Festival of Bands, one of the biggest events of the season. The Blackhawks won for Best Overall Visual, Best Overall General Effect, Best Drum Major and best of all, the Sweepstakes award, while competing against 20 other bands.
The Sweepstakes title was the first in Cheney history and a reward for months of hard work and two years of holding the program together during the pandemic.
It was even more than that for band director Josh Wisswell, a Cheney grad himself.
Wisswell, a band kid even before he moved to Cheney as a freshman in 2006, saw the program grow as a teen. Four years ago, he returned to his old school “to create opportunities that I didn’t get when I went to high school.”
“Our big thing is being here for each other, playing for each other,” Wisswell said. “It’s a very tightknit group.”
If that sounds a bit like building a sports program, that’s OK with Tyler Stevens, a senior snare drum player who’s also on the wrestling team.
“It definitely correlates,” Stevens said. “The amount of work you put in is what you’ll get out.”
And like wrestling, “it’s very technical and takes a lot of practice and a lot of time to get good at,” Stevens said.
The Blackhawks are team players. Stevens didn’t mention that he’s in charge of the drum line or that he’s the center snare player.
Likewise, Mitchell didn’t talk about her group winning for top drum major, and Ian Knight, a senior alto sax player, didn’t volunteer that he performed three solos last weekend in Everett.
“Of course they didn’t,” Wisswell said. “They’re very modest.”
But all three shared their recollections of the hard work that stretched back to the summer of 2020 when COVID-19 muffled their instruments and stopped them in their tracks. Like many high school bands, they lost members during the pandemic.
Yet they persevered.
“My senior class is very strong, both musically and personality wise,” Wisswell said. “They stuck it out, and the kids who did are band kids through and through.”
“It’s been a long process,” Knight said. “I feel like last year (the fall of 2021) was almost a preparation for this, like missing part of the summer practice.”
Life got back to normal this summer, which for the 73 band members meant nine hours a day of practice during band camp and more during the runup to football season.
“We put in a lot of work, for sure,” Mitchell said.
It all came together last weekend at the Puget Sound Festival of Bands. There’s no official state championship in marching band, and Wisswell noted the absence of the Ridgeline High School band, “which bested us twice this year.”
However, this was the biggest win in program history. Wisswell and his staff went to social media to mark the accomplishment.
“One can’t even describe the moment we got to experience tonight,” they posted on Facebook. “From the first day of camp until now, we knew this group was special. … These students have worked so hard this season and got to enjoy some very special moments with each other tonight. We even got to perform our show one extra time in a victory run.”
Their final encore came on the bus as dozens of band members sang the last two numbers they’d performed in Everett. Then came the police and fire escort.
“I knew it was coming, and it was really kind of funny,” Wisswell said.
Stevens appreciated the gesture, which capped an unforgettable fall.
“Starting out, I could tell it was going to be a pretty good season,” he said. “Everybody kept driving to be the best they could be.
“What a great way to end my senior year.”