Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep’s New Marching Band Courting Success - San Francisco Chronicle

A 22-piece marching band will get lost on a football field at halftime. But on the basketball court in tight formation, the new Sacred Heart Cathedral Irish Band is a commanding presence.

Drum major Sam Zaroff, 17, blows his blue whistle, lifts his military baton, and the three-person drum line marches out in lockstep to a New Orleans beat. The horns follow, anchored by a high-stepping tuba. Sam lifts his wand, and the band performs “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman, as if this were the ’30s or something.

And for the only time all night, the raucous and standing Sacred Heart student rooters tone it down, are respectful even, for that rarest of birds — a high school marching band performing a routine.

In San Francisco, there are only four such bands left, at public schools Washington and Burton, and at private schools Archbishop Riordan High School and Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.

These last two are Catholic rivals going back 65 years, and their bands will meet — in full plumage — at the Chinese New Year’s Parade on March 7 and at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade one week later.

“We’re not as good as the Riordan band,” concedes Sacred Heart sophomore drummer Patrick Sullivan. “We’re a lot newer.”

Performance opportunities

Smaller too, a quarter the size, and only upgraded from a stationary pep band to a marching unit in recent times.

“It gives the kids more performance opportunities because of all the community events,” says band director Ted Allen, 57. “One of the hardest things for students to acquire is consistent rhythm, and marching helps with that.”

Each student must pay $150 per year for the uniform of kelly green jacket with blue and white stripes, black pants, shoes and beret. The 7 a.m. rehearsal is a barrier to those who just want the uniform and parade glory.

You have to be dedicated, and a third of the members wanted it so badly that they joined without an instrument to play. The school provides those.

“We are an educational institution,” Allen says. “If you want to put in the time, I will teach you how to play an instrument.”

Drum major Sam was among those who knew nothing as a freshman, and now he is a senior out front in a white beret and white shoes. Also having started from scratch are the French horn, trumpet, tuba, trombone and sax.

“I didn’t think I was going to like marching, but I ended up loving it,” says drummer Patrick, 16. “It’s easy for the drummers. You just walk to the rhythm of the song.”

This year, there are only six girls, but they include Ella Scanga, pounding on the big bass drum, and alto saxophonist Mai Ly Cohen-Barshall, who gave up her spot on the boys’ wrestling team, 105-pound division.

Asked to describe her pep bandmates, she says: “They are all peppy, high energy and like a big family to me.”

Courtesy of Scott Strazzante / The San Francisco Chronicle

The 2015 marching year began at an event that is steeped in more tradition than any parade, the game between the Sacred Heart Fightin’ Irish and the St. Ignatius College Prep Wildcats. It is a rivalry that goes back to 1891, making it one of the oldest private school rivalries in the nation. Named Bruce-Mahoney after a man from each school who died in World War II, the annual basketball game is played at the University of San Francisco, before a crowd of 5,000 — which sounds a lot louder than that.

“We’re nervous, but we’re also very confident,” Sam says, as if he were about to play in the game itself. “We practiced hard for this.”

During bowl season, sports radio host Jim Rome tweeted: “Is there anyone not in a marching band who thinks those dorks running around with their instruments are cool?”

Sam has not forgotten the insult, though his bandmate Patrick can see that point of view.

“I wouldn’t call us cool,” he says, “but no one will give you a hard time at all.”

Winning band, team

At halftime, the Sacred Heart band marches out and splits into three lines. After eight bars, they form a V circling the sax section, playing Goodman’s complicated big band arrangement all the while.

It reaches a crescendo as Patrick, who barely outweighs the 100-pound sax player, pounds out a solo, channeling Gene Krupa. At the climax, the band turns in unison to face the Sacred Heart side of the court.

On their way back up into the stands, they get hugs from students. If Rome had seen that, he would never have mouthed off.

As the second half starts, St. Ignatius builds a 15-point lead. But the Sacred Heart Irish Band plays on during timeouts, 22 musicians going through all 22 numbers in their repertoire. The game’s momentum turns, and the Irish fight back to win by a point, on a basket at the buzzer.

The players pile up on the floor. The rooters pile up in the stands. Sam instantly cues up the Stanford band’s version of “All Right Now” by Free.

“The band definitely played a part in the win,” Sam says afterward. “We played with added passion as the minutes wound down.”

To watch a short video of the SHC Irish Band go to:

The Chinese New Year Parade is at 6 p.m. March 7 in San Francisco. The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is at 11:30 a.m. March 14.

Courtesy of Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter:@samwhitingsf

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