Chris Elliff was in no mood for goofing off.

When one of his band members tossed a cup to the ground, Elliff snapped at him to pick it up. When another musician fumbled his plume-topped hat in the air, Elliff sternly instructed him to stop playing around.

After all, next up was Elliff's Madison High School Symphonic Marching Band and the judges were watching. The mantle of leadership weighed heavily Saturday as his band competed against those from 15 other Washington area high schools as part of the second annual Washington Post John Philip Sousa Marching Band Invitational.

"It's weird for me, because all these people are my best friends and last year I was with them," said Elliff, 18, a senior who as drum major is now in charge of the 65-member band and accompanying 11-member color guard. "It's hard to tell them not to do it when I did it last year. It's tough to earn respect."

Make no mistake about it. Football is not the only serious competition that takes place on local high school gridirons each fall.

Each weekend, dozens of marching bands from throughout the area test their mettle in contests such as Saturday's, competing for trophies, prize money and, most important, respect.

Like any other sport, there are endless hours of practice, thousands of dollars in expenses and occasional injuries such as twisted ankles and heat exhaustion.

Madison's band practices or plays every day except Sunday, and just like their athletic counterparts, they will gather to watch the films to analyze Saturday's performance.

"People don't know how much time goes into it," said Brian Gillespie, 17, another Madison senior who is the drum line captain. "You have to be in it to understand."

While hundreds of parents and friends watched from the bleachers at Madison in Vienna, nearly 2,000 student musicians marched on and off the field Saturday seeking prizes up to $2,000. Precision, form and appearance were the order of the day.

For a handful of freshmen from West Potomac High School in southeastern Fairfax, Saturday's was the first competition ever. Nerve-racking wouldn't begin to describe it.

"I didn't get to sleep till about 2 o'clock" in the morning, said Mark Diaz, 14.

"I was afraid I was going to fall on my butt," said Barbara Kolacki, also 14, of West Potomac. "My shoes got stuck in the mud and I was trying to pull them out."

Indeed, the swamp they called a marching field left much to be desired. Aside from the usual dropped flags and rifles, musicians slipped and slid and splashed so much that a couple of students were treated for sprained ankles.

Jeffrey S. Rudy, director of the Governor Thomas Johnson High School band from Frederick, had to adapt his performance. Playing a wild West theme, his band normally stages a gunfight where one band member "shoots" another. But with the mud, Rudy had new instructions: No dying.

Other bands also performed with flourish. The Thomas Stone High School band from Waldorf played the "West Side Story" theme, complete with different gang-style jackets for the Jets and the Sharks and a mock marriage proposal from Tony to Maria.

Madison, though, preferred to stay traditional, with its familiar marching patterns, plumed hats and a selection of "Cola Breugnon," a rousing piece considered to be one of the most difficult to play.

"We concentrate on the music," Elliff said. "Bands that are playing 'Somewhere Out There' -- it's a nice song, but it's easy to learn and so they get to spend more time with their marching."

Madison also had home field advantage: After an early-morning practice before everyone else arrived, the band learned quickly where all the mud patches were.

Clearly, it paid off. When the prizes were announced, Madison walked away with more awards than any other school.