Santa Clara Vanguard will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017, but 2016 marks another major milestone for the organization: the 25th anniversary of the Vanguard Cadets’ first trip to the DCI World Championships.

On August 4, 2015, the Vanguard Cadets won their fourth DCI Open Class World Championship title. This past year they placed second to their friendly rivals, Blue Devils B. Not many know, however, that the journey to become champions actually began way back in 1991.

1991 was a year full of notable achievements in the drum corps activity. Star of Indiana won its first and only DCI World Championship finals, Sky Ryders made its last appearance in the Finals competition, and Pioneer won its first of three gold medals.

1991 also holds significance as the first time the Vanguard Cadets ventured onto the DCI World Championship stage. 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of that milestone, and many involved still remember what happened with pride and distinction.

Origin Story

Started in 1971 as a feeder group to the Vanguard “A” corps, Vanguard Cadets was primarily educational focused in its mission and limited to parades before evolving into a full-fledged competing corps. By the 1980s, the corps had transformed into a competitive A-Class unit on the West Coast, but it was still young, inexperienced, and relegated to local shows with national touring a far-off dream.

“After we changed the corps name from Vanguard “B” corps to Vanguard Cadets in 1988,” former corps director JW Koester explained, “we started traveling more throughout the West Coast and into Utah and Wyoming. We felt that traveling attracted more members, and at the same time, exposed them to what drum corps life was all about.

“In the fall of 1989, Vanguard director Gail Royer and I were discussing what was next for the cadet corps, and I asked about going to the DCI World Championships. Gail said he didn’t think we were ready for 1990, but that we should plan to go in 1991 when the contest was to be held in Dallas.

“So, in 1990 we traveled out to the Drums Along the Rockies competition in Denver and down into Texas to do a couple of DCI shows as a prep for going out to Champs in 1991.”

In the off-season, Koester and his staff went to work. “We had to develop a budget, contract buses, generate menus and, of course, let the members know exactly what the decision meant for them and their families.”

The Big Reveal

It was November of 1990 when staff, veteran and prospective members gathered at the Vanguard Hall in Santa Clara, California. “The night of the announcement that we were going to attend the Championships was pretty exciting,” Koester remembers. “Because no one actually knew what that statement really meant. The season was going to be extended by another three weeks, the rehearsal schedule elongated plus the sheer excitement of doing something that none of them had ever done before.”

That night was a bit hazy for Dave Leon, a rookie baritone horn player. “I don't recall if JW called us together and made a big announcement or just said something about going to the DCI Finals,” Leon said. “I do remember being excited that we were going, but I had zero idea of its historical significance. I was 16 at the time and was happy to be branching out on my own away from home.”

Dylan Thompson also was a rookie brass player that year. “In 1991, I was 16 and turned 17 on tour.  I remember being scared out of my wits as I auditioned. The oddly familiar smell of the ‘Smoking Room’ at the SCV Bingo Hall reminded me of my grandparents’ house. It was actually kind of soothing.”

The average age of a Vanguard Cadets member in 1991? “Young!” Koester remembers. “I don’t recall exactly, but it seems like maybe 15 and a half years old, maybe 16 at the absolute max.”  

Both Leon and Thompson were at that age, but one of those members who skewed the average was a very mature co-color guard captain, Stacy (Johnson) Franqui, who, at the tender age of 12-years old, had already marched four years with the corps. Additionally, she had trained and competed with Vanguard B’s winter guard program and the world-renowned San Jose Raiders. This “kid” was already a veteran among the rookies who showed up that night.

It probably helped that Franqui’s big brother, 15-year-old Steve, was the youngest snare drummer with the corps and her mom Sue went on tour during the summer with the corps as well.

Hitting the Road

Vanguard Cadets’ production in 1991 did not have a name. Typical to the time period, shows did not necessarily have a title and well-developed storyline, but were merely a collection of songs that might have a theme. The corps’ 1991 program contained screen and stage music from “The Big Country.” “In Quiet Dignity/Echoes of Ancient Battles” by the new-age band Checkfield, “This is One of Those Moments” from “Yentl,” and “Anything but Lonely” from “Aspects of Love.”

After intense pre-season preparations, the corps began its tour, which consisted of eight California shows and seven competitions in the second half of the season that culminated at the DCI World Championships at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

At those local competitions, scores juggled between the Mandarins and Vanguard Cadets, and even once with Blue Devils B. That was a quite an achievement for the Devils who were a Class A-60 corps at the time and fielded fewer members. In the first show in June, Mandarins won by more than a point. Vanguard came back to win the next one. Back and forth it went.

Beginning in August, Vanguard Cadets expanded its tour into Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio. Once in Texas, the corps shared accommodations with its fellow California competitor, the Mandarins, a Class A-60 corps that was already a two-time DCI World Champion.

“The DCI Tour experience was equally amazing because we stayed with the Mandarins who had become our good friends and competitors and now schoolmates,” said Koester. “They had been to this rodeo before, so we learned quite a bit from them.”

Lasting Memories

Monday, August 12 marked the World Championship Prelims competition in Dallas. The Finals competition was held the next day for advancing corps. For staff and marching members, that DCI experience pulled all emotions and left stirring memories.

JW Koester: “At the Prelims it was a very intense time because while we thought we had performed quite well, there were several other corps who also felt the same way. (Of note, there were 19 competitors in Vanguard Cadets’ A-Class division in 1991 including early versions of Carolina Crown, Spartans and Southwind.). So, when our score was announced and we knew that we had advanced to the Finals competition, the corps broke into a huge cheer.

“Seeing the corps out on the field during the Finals awards ceremony was truly magical. Those young people probably shouldn’t have even been there because there were so many other great corps in the competition. And yet, they went in strong and ready to play ball, and they did.”

Stacy (Johnson) Franqui: “I remember standing on the starting line feeling as if I were in a dream. I had been to the DCI Finals to watch the A corps twice before in ‘87 and ‘89, and now it was my turn to represent the Vanguard organization! As Jeff Jackman, one of our guard instructors, yelled, ‘Do it up color guard,’ my heart filled with pride and my eyes teared up. I don't remember there being any pressure at all. We were told to just go out there and have the time of our lives, which I did! I smiled bigger, jumped higher, and even yelped with excitement when I was facing backfield. I remember that we were so stoked and honored to have made the Finals competition!”

Dave Leon: “I didn't have enough of an appreciation for what we did in 1991 until the 1992 season when we found out we wouldn't be going to the Championships. It was then that I realized what a big deal it was that we had not only gone and represented the Vanguard organization so well, but we had done something no other Vanguard cadet corps had ever done.

“Every year, when I see the Vanguard Cadets perform, I think to myself that I could never do what they're doing. It's way too complex. So as it should, life and the drum corps activity have come full circle for me.”

Dylan Thompson: “Finals was the biggest thing that I had ever been a part of, in my life, ever. The scope and scale blew my mind. To see so many people that were interested in the same things as me. I think that is when I fell in love with DCI.

“My time spent with the Vanguard Cadets was some of the most formative and valuable time I have spent with the entire SCV organization. I can always look back over my shoulder from where I stand now, professionally and spiritually, and know that it all started at the Santa Clara Vanguard Cadets.”

Finishing it Out

In Dallas, Vanguard Cadets went from third place in the Prelims to fourth in the Finals, missing out on a bronze medal to the all-girl Canadian corps Ventures by only a point.

Both Vanguard Cadets (Class A) and Blue Devils B (Class A-60) took fourth place in their respective divisions (classifications would change to Division II & III in 1992 and Open Class in 2008). But this was old hat for Blue Devils B having first made the trek to the DCI Championships in 1977 in Denver.

Wrapping up the summer tour, buses made the 1,700 mile trek home, and pulled into the parking lot of Vanguard Hall to be greeted by a legion of parents with a large sign: “Welcome Home Vanguard – Well Done.”

In October, the 1991 Vanguard Cadets gathered to perform in the City of Santa Clara’s annual Parade of Champions. Perennials in the parade of distinguished Santa Clara groups and athletes, Vanguard had the honor of marching last. This always provided a humorous sight especially for audiences at the end of the procession: corps members, marching first with their high school band, would then sprint to join their Vanguard corps en route, still donning their band uniform. Once the parade was completed, each corps would gather up and perform its show one last time.

While the Vanguard Cadets would not attend the World Championships the following year, the corps’ “Far and Away” production in 1993 earned a silver medal finish in Division II competition.

In 2000, members of the Vanguard Cadets captured the corps’ first gold medal with additional titles to come in 2008, 2013 and most recently in 2015.