Color guard success: Mohonasen and Shenendehowa have been bringing home trophies from little-known extracurricular

The Mohonasen (top) and Shenendehowa varsity indoor color guard teams are shown in competitions. (Courtesy Michael Salamone and Scott Snell)

The Mohonasen (top) and Shenendehowa varsity indoor color guard teams are shown in competitions. (Courtesy Michael Salamone and Scott Snell)

ROTTERDAM, CLIFTON PARK – Anyone who has attended a football game where there was a half-time show would have seen a team of kids working in synchronized moves perhaps tossing wooden rifles or sabres or waving flags to the music played by their high school band. That team is called a color guard. But once football season is over, another guard takes over called the indoor color guard, whose focus is to compete.

“Indoor is a way huge activity and few know about it,” said Michael Salomone, Mohonasen’s coordinator of color guards. “Marching bands had color guards back to World War I with bands, rifles and flags. It used to be a bigger thing.”

Color guard as a term refers to those soldiers whose duty was to guard the regiment’s flag or colors. That military connection to current color guards is also why the participants wave flags and toss wooden rifles or blunt-edged sabres usually made of plastic to have them spin in the air. By the 1960s, it became popular to have groups of mostly students march with a marching band in parades or perform half-time shows. But what to do when it got too cold.

“These programs of color guards evolved out of marching bands to have them stay involved for the winter,” said Scott Snell, director of Shenendehowa’s indoor color guard program. “It gave them something to do year round.”

In 1965, the Mid-York Colorguard Circuit was established to set rules and standards for indoor color guards to compete. It currently has 55 teams from 28 schools between east Rochester to Albany and south as far as Binghamton. It’s one of two circuits in the state. Snell is currently president of this circuit.

Salamone said indoor guard had been at Mohonasen since the 1980s where the district set up three teams: the high school or varsity team, which currently has 15 students; the junior or JV team of 30 students; and the Pinewood children of 30 students mostly from fifth to sixth grade. In 2014, they began competing and have won several regional competitions. Its marching band and color guard also compete within its own circuit of the state’s Field Band Conference. At Shen, indoor teams have been competing since at least 1993 and currently have fifty students among the three units. There is no outdoor color guard per se, because there is no marching band.

“We put everyone together on the field and perform to recorded music,” Snell said. “Then we bring them indoors after the football season is over.”

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Other indoor color guards include Albany High School,which does compete and Johnstown School district, which is restarting a once thriving indoor program; Amsterdam High School has an outdoor color guard that works with its marching band but does not compete and not all marching bands include a color guard.

Time commitment

To participate in color guard is considered extra-curricular and takes not only a substantial time commitment from the students but also a financial one from the district. At Mohonasen, each team has its own staff with a choreographer who comes from Austin, Texas. Once auditions have been held in November and the theme for the year’s show has been set, teams do 3-hour rehearsals twice a week and often give up their weekends. Shen rehearses on weekends with varsity working up to eight hours on Saturdays; their JV up to five hours and the Cadet level up to four. Districts supply funds from costumes to equipment and props with the students and parents putting on frequent fundraisers to pay for travel and lodging for the many competitions the teams do.

“At Mohonasen we have a great advocate,” Salamone said. “These are valuable activities for the students to find a place to mature and are well equipped to deal with life’s challenges. We have some in varsity who started in fifth grade. It’s a feeder system to keep kids invested. Few kids quit varsity. There’s a lot of commitment. Joining is usually by word of mouth. It’s pretty popular.”

At Shen, Snell said the district has a small budget to pay for his staff of fourteen and does frequent booster events to raise the yearly $86,000 needed to run the program for the year from July through April.

The results for Shen over the decades is impressive: 73 state medals as well as as three medals at the international world competition.
“We’re ranked eleventh in the country,” Snell said.

As for outdoor color guard, which is really considered part of the marching band at Mohonasen, rehearsals for the fall show for the school’s home football games gets started in July. Then there’s a week-long band camp and three-hour rehearsals twice a week and some weekends. Their competition season runs from mid-September to late October. (In fact, their latest competition was for yesterday (Oct. 8) as one of six bands from New York out of 55 bands competing at US Band’s Ludwig Musser Classic at the MetLife Stadium at East Rutherford, New Jersey.)

“It’s a big deal,” Salamone said.

Veteran performer

At Shen, Snell gets all those interested in guard to work in April.

“After world championships, we submitted ideas and voted on one show with Scott,” said Katie Bogardus, who’s been coaching the JV squad and is the new librarian at Shen. “In May, we started rehearsals to brush up on technique; took June off; and in July began working on skills and parts of the routine. By August we began working twice a week outside and then three days in a row closer to the first game.”

The hazards to outdoor color guard include the elements like wind and rain interfering with their “spinning” of rifles and sabres; a ground full of holes and super hot days when their equipment is too hot to touch and black costumes that absorb the heat.

“Inside, it’s our season,” she said.

The discipline requires strong athleticism, a focused work ethic, and a good ear for music. But it’s a team effort and that’s part of what Bogardus has come to appreciate.

“The social connections I’ve made, the bonds in something I love to do and meeting people outside of the area,” she said.

Once November hits, everyone auditions for the indoor segment of guard and the goal then is to focus on getting a winning routine to win at WGI in April in Dayton, Ohio.

“There are four hundred people at the finals, eight thousand in the arena and three hundred guards over six divisions,” Snell said, who has been part of color guard since he was ten. “It’s a unique activity and it gives many kids the experience and the creativity to bring ideas to life.”

That event comes after many regional competitions in which teams get feedback on their routines and can make adjustments.

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Member since fifth grade

“Competitions are nerve wracking,” said Gabriella Mikropoulos, a senior at Mohonasen who has been a member of guard since fifth grade. “But I get a [bit] of adrenalin and it’s fun and I love it. I thought color guard was really cool when I saw a team when I was 8. It was unique – like dancing with equipment. It’s like being in a corps ballet.”

Although her team has won several competitions, being seen as a star among her classmates hasn’t happened.

“I don’t really get noticed. Most people don’t even know the activity exists,” she said.

For Ember Beer, a fifth grader in Mohonasen’s JV unit, she said she was attracted to “how well things were put together. I always wanted to do this and the coaches were very understanding. . .and I have a good handful of friends who do it.”

She especially loves the saber tossing.

“It does take time to learn but it’s worth it,” Beer said. “I even practice it in my driveway.”

For Bogardus, however, the activity has led to a life career. When she first saw a guard show at Shen, she said she thought the team was “Wow – real life magic. . .but I can talk to them.” She joined in 2008. After graduating from Shen in 2015, she headed to Russell Sage for college. But she missed color guard.

“I started to explore outside of Shen and found a drum corps in Spartan, New Hampshire, which is like a marching band with forty guards and 120 musicians,” she said. “But I still wanted to do world class guard.”

Bogardus found one in Boston called Blessed Sacrament and got a spot.

“It was very exciting,” she said.

Meanwhile, in looking for a place to practice her routines locally, she “slipped into” a stint coaching Shen’s JV color guard. She also got involved during the summer as a Bluecoat with Drum Corps International, which did outside shows on football fields that were like Broadway shows and were broadcast at Regal Cinema theaters. In 2019 she graduated college and in 2020 got her masters in library science.

In 2021, after five seasons with Blessed Sacrament, she opted out and although working in the Cambridge, NY school district as an elementary librarian where she started a small color guard, she still missed guard. She discovered a group called Fusion in New Jersey, auditioned, won a spot and will get to go to international competitions.

“The people at Bluecoats are at Fusion, so I knew I had to audition or miss out,” Bogardus said. “It’s a commitment for sure. But I don’t know what my life would have been without color guard.”

She also recently learned that the Cambridge color guard of six children will continue.

“I love teaching and to see kids eyes light up when they get a skill down,” she said. “Color guard didn’t come easily for me. So it’s rewarding.”

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