Twelve flags are flying high this week as the Columbus East High School Winter Guard prepares for the state finals Saturday.
Winter guard is a competitive activity that combines rifle tossing and flag spinning with synchronized movement and flexibility. It’s the offseason, indoor version of color guard — a dance commonly seen on the football field during halftime and derived from military ceremonies — and is performed to recorded music rather than the sounds of a marching band.
The team, which typically performs in front of judges rather than sports fans, will compete Saturday against 17 other schools for the Class A title at the Indiana High School Color Guard Association State Finals.
It’s been a journey of ups and downs to get there.
The squad earned fourth, sixth, fourth and then 12th in regular-season matches but qualified for state by being one of the top 16 schools in the IHSCGA state preliminaries at Decatur Central High School.
“We’re not getting cocky,” junior captain Katie Bolte said, recognizing the need to keep working hard heading into Saturday.
The last time East’s winter guard made an appearance in the state finals was in 2012, when the team placed 15th.
The team is led by color and winter guard director Mistie Bulthuis, a 2008 graduate of Columbus North High School. She was a color guard member all four years of high school, and she returned to the sport this year to make a career out of her passion.
Senior head captain Sarada Davis said the fact Bulthuis led the team to the state finals in her first year speaks to her ability as a director.
“Thanks to her, we’ve put a lot of hard work in and made a lot of progress,” she said.
Practices have been long this week — three hours of repetition three times a week.
The team focuses on 15- or 30-second segments of the four-minute routine. For every dropped rifle or flag, there is another run-through.
“It happens too many times to count,” Davis said, remembering a time when a girl on the team broke her nose with a flying rifle a few years ago.
But it still comes together when the “Anchors Away” routine is performed from start to finish.
About the routine
As the music starts, the team comes to life on the blue mat with a cut-out anchor and a chain with waves painted across it.
“Maybe the past is like an anchor holding us back,” a voice comes over the stereo. “Maybe you have to let go of who you were to become who you will be.”
Then the light tune of “How It Ends” — a 2004 song by DeVotchKa that has been featured in movies such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” the trailer for “Everything is Illuminated” and a 2013 DirectTV commercial — begins; and the flags, wooden rifles and plastic sabers twirl in unison.
Bulthuis, who is responsible for the choreography, said she was inspired by the tones of the song.
“It just kind of comes to you,” she said. “There’s really no better explanation.”
Although the routine requires basic dance moves — jazz walks and calypso leaps — many team members have never taken a dance class.
Others, such as senior Jessica Pevlor, had training years earlier.
“When I went to high school, I had to quit all my dance classes,” she said.
Homework and other extracurricular activity got in the way.
“This is a way for me to keep going,” she said.
Regardless of experience — there are four freshmen, one sophomore, five juniors and two seniors — the team makes it work.
Davis said she thinks it is because the team has become like a family, one that takes cellphone photos together on water breaks and shares inside jokes.
Then they get back down to business. After all, a state title is on the line.