The Martin County High School boys’ basketball team was in the final quarter of a nail-biter of a game at a regional tournament in Pikeville, Ky., when live music suddenly started playing for them.
Right before the Pike County Central High School Band began performing, the musicians had some downtime and were awaiting their school’s own game. That’s when they noticed something on the court that day, March 2: One team had a band cheering them on, and one didn’t.
Jason Johnson, Pike Central Band director, said some audience members and cheerleaders started encouraging his band to level the paying field and perform for the Martin County Cardinals.
The Cardinals players were hustling hard and seemed like the underdog in their match against Lawrence County High School from Louisa, Ky. But, Johnson said, they had no band to motivate the players.
The Cardinals never have a band at games unless they’re playing at home since they’re a smaller school than some of the others and have limited access to transportation.
“I was thinking, well, what should I do?” Johnson recalled.
The score was 64-64.
Johnson said there was a possibility his own school would face the Cardinals in a later game in the tournament, so he didn’t know if helping to hype up this team was the right move. He asked himself: “How would the other kids feel? How would the crowd respond?”
The band members, though, seemed eager to sub in for Martin County’s band that day at the Appalachian Wireless Arena.
“It was the students who really stepped up and banded together,” said Johnson, who ultimately ignored his concerns and decided, “let’s just do it.”
As they started their first song, the energy in the arena skyrocketed.
“We began performing a couple of fun tunes,” Johnson said. “We had a great, organic moment of just kids supporting kids.”
“We just wanted to encourage them and uplift them in a time when they needed it most,” said Abigail Ratliff, 17, a flute player in the Pike Central Band. “It was such a cool experience to get to support someone else.”
The Pike Central Band also started cheering for the Cardinals. In the end, the Cardinals clinched an 80-71 victory in overtime.
Players said the hype and spirit from the band helped them come out on top. Now, the team is headed for the state tournament, marking the school’s first time competing at that level in 40 years.
“The energy just skyrocketed,” said Luke Hale, 17, a member of the Martin County High School boys’ basketball team. “The crowd’s energy just really pushed us to the end.”
“Them doing that really shows their sportsmanship,” he added.
“Their band is unbelievable,” said Jason James, the coach at Martin County. “It really got the crowd and the cheerleaders going.”
Although Pike County Central High School’s own basketball team lost in their next game, the school — and especially its band — left the arena feeling like winners, they said.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Ryan Price, 17, a trombone player in the band.
The two schools are more than 50 miles apart, both in Eastern Kentucky. Pike County Central has 660 students, about 160 more students than Martin County. About 70 percent of Martin County High’s students are economically disadvantaged, according to the Kentucky Department of Education, and Pike County Central has about 58 percent who are in that category, according to the state’s school report card.
The schools often compete against each other at sporting events, so they consider themselves rivals. They had never supported each other like this before.
“It was a come-together moment,” said Timothy Cline, the Pike County Central principal, who called the area “the often-forgotten corner of Eastern Kentucky.”
“The underdog won,” he added, explaining that Pike County Central is larger than Martin County High, and has a more robust band program. “Character is so much more than a trophy, and we’ve been living that.”
Following the success of the performance, Martin County’s band was able to plan to play for the school’s upcoming state tournament on March 16 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky. They asked Pike Central Band to play alongside them, and the band eagerly accepted.
“Our band program here wanted to support them,” Johnson said.
Cassie Gibson-Hites, the band director at Martin County, said she is thrilled by the unexpected partnership. The Martin County Cardinal Band, as well as middle school musicians and members of the Pike Central Band, will be performing together.
“The three of us will be joining forces, all under the Martin County Cardinal Band,” Gibson-Hites said.
She said the students are all pumped for the important upcoming game.
“We are going to be a wall of sound,” Gibson-Hites said.
Although her band is on the smaller side, they are “mighty,” she continued, adding that they are looking forward to making music with more band members.
The athletes are particularly excited, she said, and grateful to have so much support going into the big game.
“It means the world to our school,” Hale said. “We can’t wait.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Pike County Central Band member Abigail Ratliff’s last name. It has been corrected.