It may be difficult to envision a four-time state champion as an underdog, but Hoover High School band members, parents, directors and supporters certainly didn’t think of themselves as the favorites in the finals of a state band competition last Saturday.
The band program had lacked a full-time music director until late September and finished outside the top five in the previous week’s semifinals, but the Hoover musicians rallied to win a California State Band Championship Division 4-A title at Huntington Beach High School.
Overall, Hoover just nudged past Bell Gardens, 88.85 to 88.1, in a division for bands between 70 and 90 students.
The state crown is the fifth consecutive one for Hoover, which won 4-A titles in 2018 and 2017 and 3-A titles in 2016 and 2015.
Hoover’s band has 73 students, including those who play instruments, such as horns and drums, the color guard and the front ensemble, which includes marimbas and xylophones. The squad’s experience levels vary from beginners to those who have played for years.
“We were pleasantly surprised with the results because we didn’t expect it,” said Dan Baker, the band’s director of percussion studies and a school alumnus. “For that, you have to access the entire season in perspective.”
Perhaps no person was more instrumental to Hoover’s musical dominance than former director of instrumental music Martin Rhees, who stepped down after 10 years in June.
“Martin brought all this success to Hoover, but, when he left, there was this huge void in leadership and in band competitive experience,” said Harkmore Lee, booster president of the Hoover band. “What was amazing was the 73 students and about eight part-time staffers, if you will, they joined forces and said ‘we’re going to do this, even without a director.’”
The school did not hire Rhees’ replacement, Byran Lackey, until late September, well after summer practices.
Baker, who normally held a percussion program during the summer for five weeks, supervised other band students, such as brass and woodwind players, who attended practices on their own accord.
The district’s long-term substitute teacher also became the unofficial band director during the transition period that eventually led to Lackey’s hire.
It appeared the challenging times had no ill effect because, according to Baker, Hoover won every competition it entered heading into the state semifinals on Nov. 16 at Capistrano Valley High School.
However, while Baker’s percussion unit shined, taking first place, the Tornadoes fizzled, finishing eighth overall with 85.52 points, well behind winner Bakersfield Liberty High (90.90) and runner-up Bell Gardens (90.25).
“It had been a long time since we finished so low,” Baker said. “We came in with high expectations, and we really adjusted them for the state finals.”
After coming in at eighth place, Baker said he thought the band would finish fourth or fifth at the state contest.
When it came time to announce the scores in Huntington Beach, Hoover band members listened anxiously to hear their school’s name.
“I was waiting after they announced eighth place, then seventh, then sixth, then fifth, and then when fourth came around, I was nervous,” Baker said. “The butterflies were in my stomach and didn’t leave until they said first place.”
Hoover’s victory qualified the squad to the combined championship that same day for divisions 4A, 5A and 6A, in which the Tornadoes finished ninth, with 85.550 points.
District rival Crescenta Valley High topped Hoover in the combined finals as the Falcons took fifth with 89.3 points.
Earlier that day, Crescenta Valley High placed sixth in Division 5A, for bands with roughly 90 to 120 members, with 87.05 points.