As the music plays, the Pickering High School girls spin and throw their flags in the air. It’s a colorful spectacle, and full of movement and energy. This is the winter guard — the only team like it in all of Vernon Parish.

As the music plays, the Pickering High School girls spin and throw their flags in the air. It’s a colorful spectacle, and full of movement and energy.

This is the winter guard — the only team like it in all of Vernon Parish. The team has been active for the past five years, competing against teams from Louisiana and Mississippi.

Last year, the team took home two first-place trophies. So far this year, the team took home a third-place trophy in its first meet Jan. 28 at Northwestern State University. There are four more events for the team before the championships April 1.

The girls have been practicing the whole weekend — Friday and Saturday, and the practice continues today. The next meet will be Saturday, said Roland Smith, band director at the high school.


What is winter guard?

Smith said Winter Guard International has about 80 teams in Louisiana and Mississippi. The organization has been around since the late 1970s.

Winter guard is similar to color guard. The difference is color guard performs outdoors with the marching band. Winter guard, as the name implies, is active during the winter, indoors — and it performs alone, to recorded music, he said.

That simple change makes a world of difference, he said. When a color guard performs, only one judge reviews the work, because the main focus is on the marching band. Winter guard is judged on its own, and five judges evaluate everything — how the individual performers carry themselves, the equipment they use, the performance as a whole, and more.


‘A whole new level’

Smith said it was fairly easy to add to add winter guard to the list of activities at Pickering.

“The guard girls always wanted to do more,” he said. “They needed the motivation to continue to practice. And I thought it would be excellent for us to do it.”

So about five years ago, he took the students on a road trip to watch the winter guard championships. Once they saw it for themselves, they wanted to do it.

“We’ve been excited ever since we started. And it takes things to a whole new level,” Smith said.

Smith described the appeal of winter guard. It combines the activity of sports with art.

“We’re just trying to artistry with music,” he said. “It’s the sport for those who are more artistic. And they have to do a lot of things with their bodies; they have to be very active.”

Smith said during the Friday rehearsal that the students were handling the fundamentals. But when it comes to show time, they will exert themselves even more, to the point that they will be out of breath at the end of their four-minute routine.

“It’s the sport of the arts, that’s what it is,” he said.

David Steele, the choreographer, agreed.

“If sports and the arts kind of came together, this is something that you would get,” he said.


Added meaning

Smith added that there is a special meaning to the routine the students are performing this year, called “Historically Speaking.” The music selected is a piece by Nathan Lanier, and it is combined with speeches from Ronald Reagan, Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump and others.

Significantly, Ronald Reagan is heard urging the leaders of East Berlin to tear down its wall, while Donald Trump is announcing that he will build a wall.

During the routine, a wall will divide the stage down the center, and the students will perform on either side. Smith said the idea is not to push a specific agenda, but to allow the audience members to make their own decision.

“Our show is very current in nature, using quotes from Trump and Clinton. But the idea we want to express is one of unity. We want everybody to band together.”

Steele said the performance was an academic lesson, as well.

“We see this as an opportunity for us to connect history with current issues, he said. “They’re learning all these skills and learning to work together in a group. But they also learn something that is beyond this, that they can walk away with after the season.”

He added that he brought an actual piece of the former Berlin Wall with him to lessons, so the students have a connection to the actual history lesson.


‘My second family’

Tenley Webber, 13, describes how winter guard makes her feel.

“It gives me a rush that I haven’t felt before. It gets me out of house, and lets me do something fun,” she said.

Webber added that when she was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she had no sports that she liked. But when she saw the winter guard perform last year, it clicked for her.

Amaya Reeks, 12, got into winter guard because she saw her sister doing it. But for her, getting started was the hard part.

“I was scared to try out because I thought I wasn’t good enough,” she said. “And then I went to tryouts, but then, I was like, shaking, crying. I was so nervous, But then I was like, ‘Wow. I can’t believe I did that.”

She now finds it motivating. She has also earned a nickname, “Legacy,” because she followed her sister.

Abby Chesher, 17, participates even though she has several medical issues. Her blood sugar levels can spike above 200 — or fall below 70 — when she performs.

Still, doctors have taken so many other physical activities away from her that she refuses to give up this one, she said.

“My life revolves around guard. If you want me to do something, guard comes first,” she said.

Winter guard gives her motivation, and a reason to stay out of the hospital.

Hannah Blackwell, 17, said winter guard is a refuge.

“It’s like a second family. It’s something you can come to, without our problems. You can leave them at home, all our problems behind,” she said. “Like we’re alive, and we can breathe.”

She added that she enjoys the feeling right as the performance ends.

“The rush is the best feeling in the world,” Blackwell said. “The moment before the audience starts clapping.”

Tessa Kunath, 17, agreed.

“It’s a really fun thing to do. Because when we go out there, we’re showing them who we really are. This is us, this is what we have to say. And we don’t even say a word. We’re performing with our flags, and our facial expressions,” she said.

Kunath added that she enjoys her time with her teammates.

“It’s really amazing to be able to experience this with my second family. You know, I can trust them with anything and everything.”