For VCU's pep band, the vibe is serious fun
Mar 22, 2013 (Richmond Times-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- The VCU Rams don't need to blow their own horn. The pep band does it for them -- on stilts.
For any follower of Virginia Commonwealth University basketball, the pep band has become an integral part of the experience. Fans may come for the basketball, but they relish the band.
And as the basketball team's profile has risen, so has the pep band's.
Long before they rode around New York City atop a double-decker bus, and in front of the "Today" show's cameras, the band has been building a fan base of its own.
"We have something special in our band," said Ramona Neifeld, a Hanover County resident who drove to this suburb north of Detroit for the Rams' first game in the NCAA tournament. "They're as much a part of it."
Band members and fans say there's just something different about the group -- beyond the guy on stilts playing trombone.
"It's a lot more lax, the music's a lot cooler. There's no synchronized dance moves that I kind of find a little cheesy," said Jackson Shurlds, a sophomore from Chesterfield County. "It's not so uptight. It's really loose; you can express yourself a little bit better."
When the band director learned that Colton "Cole" Freudenthal, a sophomore in the band, rode a unicycle, an idea sprouted.
"We entertained the idea that we could do trombone on the unicycle," Freudenthal said. "A lot harder."
But the Deep Run High School graduate had just started walking on stilts this past summer.
"I kind of got more and more comfortable to where I'm OK with holding a $1,000 instrument," he said, especially standing next to the basketball court.
Their uniform also is nontraditional: jeans and baseball jerseys.
"The vibe that everyone gets is one where it's serious and professional but at the same time we can have fun," Freudenthal said. "If we have an idea that's totally kooky and not normal, we can bring it up and sometimes even that idea will get implemented. Like the stilts."
In describing why he drove a van with four other people 11 hours to Detroit to cheer on VCU, Joe Burleigh noted the band, called the Peppas.
"In recent years, it's just been the total atmosphere associated with VCU," said Burleigh, of Woodlake. "It's just everything that goes with it, all the trappings. The pep band and Coach (Shaka) Smart and what he's brought to the program."
"Oh, the Peppas. The Peppas are fantastic," one of his van mates gushed.
Band members, the 29 who are part of the NCAA tournament travel group, have an easy rapport with each other and with Ryan Kopacsi, the director of athletic bands. During a practice on Thursday before the game, they kidded one another and delivered good-natured pokes.
Those who have been part of the band from the time they started VCU have also seen the change in national exposure -- and a good portion of the country traveling for championship or tournament games.
"My mom lives vicariously through me on these trips," said Aryn McClain, a junior who plays the trombone. She said she has played the trombone in 10 states with the VCU band.
Brian Kappus, a senior from Midlothian, could tick off six states he has traveled with in the band.
He said he has noticed a big difference since the team made it to the Final Four two years ago.
"It's sold out, the crowd is a lot more into it, it's a lot more responsive to people," he said. "It's become this crazy, quintessential college basketball atmosphere that can compete with the best of them. It's great. I just have been soaking it up."
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