It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the New Castle Show Choir that graduated 36 seniors from last year's state championship group. Half of this year's choir was made up of freshmen and sophomores. A new director had taken over the program built so skillfully by Judy Hubbard.
But one of the numbers performed by the New Castle group summed up a remarkable climb - Maxine Nightingale's disco number entitled "Right Back Where We Started From."
In spite of its youthful nature, the loss of so many seasoned performers and the transition to a new director, New Castle's show choir was, indeed, right back where it started from Saturday night - on the state finals stage.
John Doty's "Red, Hot, Blues" brought home a seventh-place finish at the state finals, held in Plainfield. New Castle was just one-tenth of a point away from sixth. DeKalb's Classic Connection ultimately won the contest.
"I could not be more proud of those kids," Doty said. "It was their best performance of the season and so cool to watch them leave everything they had on the stage. This is why I teach - to see these kids have such a feeling of accomplishment."
It was quite a climb from the beginning of the season. Doty reflected that the group - consisting of 36 singer/dancers, seven instrumentalists and two prop girls - didn't score very high in its first competition of the season.
"That was an eye-opener for those who had not been in a varsity competition before," he said. "It was completely different from anything they had experienced."
But the group learned fast, worked hard and was able to maintain an impressive streak for the vocal music department. It was the fourth consecutive year New Castle had made it to the state finals.
The school's state finals presence is like a song stuck in their opponents' heads.
"It's interesting to go to some of these competitions and hear kids go by and say 'Oh, that's New Castle, that's our main competition today.' It's nice to hear that your reputation precedes you," Doty said.
With the girls dressed in pink sequin dresses and the guys wearing silver suits, black shirts and pink ties - new attire funded by the Henry County Community Foundation - New Castle thrilled the crowd through a wide-ranging show that featured not only different time periods of music, but different genres as well.
From Australian pop singer John Farnham's "You're the Voice" to the Steve Miller Band, 1970s disco and the current hit group fun., the show carried a "young" theme that matched the singers on stage.
There was an impressive wardrobe change in the midst of the 22-minute show, where the singers suddenly appeared wearing blue jeans, the guys with black-and-white ties and the girls with black tank tops.
The choreography before the show begins is almost as tricky as the dance moves in the competition itself. The kids have to assemble four dressing rooms and three large backdrops. Parents can help unload things and deliver it up to the stage, but the performers are on their own after that.
Many New Castle supporters provided a literal chorus of vocal support, complete with its own impressive backdrop.
"We had a police escort and people were lined up, holding signs and honking horns," Doty said. "The kids got to see firsthand they had a lot of support from the community, which was awesome.
"And the roar when they came out on stage was so cool," Doty said. "The kids used that energy and gave it back ten-fold. It was their best performance of the season."
Among those in the crowd were many former members of the show choir.
"There were between 20 and 30 who left college to be there and support the choir," parent supporter Jo Ann Hancock said. "Talking with Floyd Luellen and Sarah Wilkinson, who graduated in 2011 and 2012, they told me they were there because they still feel a family connection to the current show choir kids."
Also in the crowd was Hubbard, the retired director who continues to be an avid supporter of the program.
"She was just as pleased as she could be," Doty said. Senior Chelsea Woody said she loved the moments right before the group takes the stage, when they form a circle, hold hands and say a prayer.
It was both a physically and emotionally exhausting day for the group.
Seniors in this year's choir had written "really nice letters" to the younger members, according to Doty.
"It was very tearful and emotional for the kids before we left Saturday morning," Doty said.
"Then they put their heart and soul into these performances," he continued. "By the time they get back on the bus, they are just exhausted."
But the lessons learned in the process are, in the end, worth far more than a trophy or plaque, Doty said.
"An activity like this requires a higher order of thinking," Doty said. "And the kids enjoy the camaraderie they have with one another. That's really cool to be a part of and see. It's probably my favorite part."