History in the making: Three Valley bands hopeful to place in state marching band contests

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The PSJA Early College High School marching band tuba players are reflected on their instruments during band practice at the school on Monday, Oct. 23, 2023, in Pharr. The PSJA Band will compete at the University Interscholastic League State Open Class Marching Band Contest Class 6A on Oct. 30 through Nov. 1, at the Alamodome in San Antonio. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

With the Rio Grande Valley having a rich history of marching band culture, three Valley bands advanced to the state level with each school making history.

The University Interscholastic League (UIL) Area marching band contests were held last weekend for 2A, 4A and 6A, with PSJA Early College High School, Grulla High School and Raymondville Early College High School all advancing to the State Open Class Marching Band Contest held from Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

PSJA was named UIL 6A Area G champions by earning 1st place, the first PSJA ISD marching band in history to do so in an area marching band contest.

In UIL 4A Area E, Grulla High received 2nd place and Raymondville earned 4th place with both qualifying to advance to the state marching band contest.

Grulla’s qualification marks the school’s 12th consecutive trip to the state contest. The last time Grulla advanced to the state was in 2021 where they ranked 10th and in 2014 where they came close to a top three finish at the 4th spot.

Raymondville takes its first trip to the state contest since 1998, a milestone for the program and fourth-year band director Benjamin Keltner.

The PSJA Bears Band Director John Garza said he refers to marching band as the ultimate team sport with all the production, practice and execution that goes into it and watching it all come to fruition is a surreal moment.

Describing the bands success story as a “David and Goliath story,” Garza said PSJA ECHS was not the biggest band in the contest but played like one.

“They worked tirelessly and everybody that’s on the field contributes to the ensemble,” he said. “They really exceeded my expectations. And I noticed that from the first day of summer band in July. The potential that they had and how good that they could be.”

PSJA’s show is called “Nevermore” based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” which ranges with songs from Metallica to Dmiti Shostakovich, a Russian composer and pianist.

Emily Hernandez, head drum major and senior, said she was privileged to see how far the band has come since the summer.

“It’s a dream to see them realize their full potential,” she said.

Kiara Cano, alto saxophone senior, said she felt nervous playing in front of a huge crowd but knowing she had the support of all of her fellow bandmates encouraged her to perform her best.

With both saying they were shocked at receiving 1st place, Hernandez said the band feels invincible heading to state.

“We’ve overcome so many obstacles and we’ve faced many odds and now it just feels like anything is possible,” she said.

Gerardo Guerra, head band director for Grulla High, said the marching band has advanced to the state contest every year since 2011 and it is expected of them.

With the band’s day starting at 5:30 a.m. on the bus to the competition, Guerra said his students came off the field crying tears of joy after their performance. They would wait until after midnight to find out that they qualified for the state championships.

The Grulla High School marching band performs Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. (Courtesy: Rio Grande City Grulla ISD/Facebook)

Putting in hours of work for moments like that is what drives Guerra and his staff, he said.

Aiming for a top three finish in the state contest, Guerra said the students are vibrating with excitement to put on a good show and reach their goals.

For Raymondville, Keltner said the achievement of getting to the state contest for the second time in school history and the first time in 25 years is a sign of progression over the last four years of the hard work from the staff and the students.

He said the students erupted with joy and were screaming when they heard about being placed fourth of out seven bands that were going to advance to state.

Knowing the toughest part of the competition is ahead of them, Keltner asked his students one question.

“We gave them two options,” he said. “Number one, do you want to push to the next level or number two do you just want to chill and have fun. All of them picked number one.”

Schools in 3A and 5A division will perform Saturday with the possibility of more Valley marching bands qualifying for the state contest.