Saturday, August 15, 2020
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Burgeoning musical monolith in Aledo, IL

There may not be thousands of students at Mercer County High School in Aledo, Illinois, but at least a third of them play a musical instrument well enough to have some fun with music and school spirit in a basketball pep band, The Peoria Journal-Star reports.

Most of the attention in Peoria this weekend is on the boys’ basketball championships, which wrap up tomorrow at the Peoria Civic Center, but with basketball championships come pep bands. And the Illinois High School Association chooses the best pep bands it can find, regardless of whether a school’s basketball team reached the state tournament.

This year for Friday, the IHSA chose the pep band from Mercer County, led by Rusty Ruggles, who took a fledgling instrumental music program in 1999 and grew it into one of the most popular extracurricular activities at the high school. Unfortunately, even though 134 of 390 students at the school play in the band, the Peoria Civic Center only has space for 79 in that section. That’s usually enough, but Mercer County isn’t the usual pep band.

Mr Ruggles was once nominated for a Jefferson Award, WQAD-TV reported last year. “He’s shown me how to just be a kind, compassionate person and how to show people you care,” the station quoted one student as saying. “He’s taught us to have fun and just to be good people in the world,” said another.

He spends more time than most high school directors do with middle school students, too, and they appreciate his efforts and stick with him when they arrive at the high school. “When we start in sixth grade, the kids might have absolutely no knowledge of music or how to read it or play it and we all start at the same level. We have a book and we learn it, and we learn how to play our instruments,” one student was quoted as saying.

Beyond the school’s now-blossoming music program, he has supported other programming the school provides. For example, he was involved with efforts to upgrade the track on the athletic field. “He really is an unsung hero,” said one student. “He cares about all of us, and with the track came new bleachers and new lights around the football field. He did the band shell [at the community park], and he does the sound system at every event there.”

And so this Friday night at the state basketball semifinals for classes 3A and 4A, he brings his students, all of his seniors and “a few scattered juniors,” to the biggest high school basketball stage in the state, one final pep band performance of their high school musical careers, where they’ll play songs like “25 or 6 to 4” and “The Horse.” Less than two months from today, on May 13, those seniors will graduate.

From the school’s fight song:

On to Vic’try, strike up the band
Fight them far, fight them near
Stand up and cheer, Hey!
Golden Eagles, win for Mercer County
The best in the land!

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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