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WELCOME TO THE BIG SHOW

The Gilbert Marching Band is a force of nature … in size and sound

With his head tilted slightly to the ground, Gilbert High School band director Byron Tinder slowly shuffles around in front of his junior and senior marching band as it plays the Iowa State fight song on a pleasant Monday morning while the sun blazes in the background.

Tinder isn’t watching his band. He’s listening to his band. Meticulously listening, actually. Soon enough, he stops the performance and speaks in an even tone into his bullhorn so that his direction is amplified across the field.

Yes, Tinder uses a bullhorn. It’s necessary with so many band members spread from 30-yard-line to 30-yard-line inside Tiger Stadium. Roughly 20 minutes later, a similar pattern materializes when his freshman and sophomore marching band is on the field.

Interestedly enough, the only time the two bands come together is during home football games in the fall. And when they do? It’s glorious.

Ten years ago, the Gilbert marching band had only 62 members — a respectable number, but not necessarily the standard for a program with such lofty expectations, its own and those of the community. Today though, the marching band is 131 strong and the envy of many similarly-sized school districts across the state. Now you also know why the two groups practice separately.

“We are a very unique band in that our marching bands don’t rehearse as a group together,” Tinder says while sitting comfortably in his massive band room early Monday morning. “The percentage of the student body in band is probably 25 percent and if they were all meeting the same period, you’d run into all kinds of gridlock in the schedule. That’s why we don’t do much movement on the marching band field. You’re going to hear us play different music every Friday night and we’re going to play it well, but we’re going to stand and play it.”

When Tinder came to Gilbert 11 years ago, he made the conscious decision to transition away from competitive marching band. It took too much time and energy from the students, and the outcome was a drastic drop in numbers. After four years under his leadership, the band went from 62 members to 129 and has consistently stayed between 125 and 140 ever since.

“I preach to parents that you can be in band and anything else,” Tinder says. “We want athletes, we want kids who are National Merit scholars, we want kids who are in choir, speech and FFA, and we want kids who hold jobs to be in band. So we’re not going to chase trophies in marching band, but that’s what’s resulted in the growth of our program in numbers. The challenge is to keep the quality of the product high along with the numbers.”

That hasn’t been a problem for the Gilbert band, which is quite apparent when you hear it play under the Friday Night Lights.

Tinder and his pupils thrive on those expectations though. They know spectators aren’t going to race to the concession stand at halftime of home football games. Rather, they’re going to sit right where they are to enjoy the band’s halftime show.

“The expectations here, it’s not just in music, it’s everything,” Tinder says. “It’s the academics, it’s the well-rounded students we produce. To teach in a district with these expectations is really fun. There’s a challenge to it, but I’d rather teach here than a place that didn’t expect great things.”

Those expectations will certainly be amplified this Friday night when, for the third time in eight years, the Gilbert marching band will welcome its Iowa State University brethren to Tiger Stadium for a joint performance. Nearly 500 band members will fill the field for pregame and halftime performances, similar to what they did at the grand opening of the stadium on Aug. 29, 2014 — a raucous occasion that culminated in a fireworks show following a 38-6 victory over Webster City — as well as four years ago on ISU’s second visit to Gilbert.

“It’s a win-win (for both bands) because there’s such a natural connection and partnership between Gilbert and Iowa State,” Tinder says. “We agreed that it works really well for both of us to do this, but it has to work with the schedule. We have to have a home game and they have to have a home game, but this gives them a chance to get a run through for their show on Saturday. Their kids can carpool up here, they can rehearse up here at our Intermediate field, they get a performance here, and then our boosters feed them.

“To have one of the really top collegiate bands in the country in our backyard is a blessing. And then for them to be so accommodating and to be so in tune with the public schools is a neat thing. The whole band department down there understands what we do and is accessible to us. It’s a year-round thing. We are always able to pick up the phone and bounce ideas off of them.”

The Gilbert marching band has been a conduit to the ISU marching band over the years. Currently, a handful of Gilbert graduates now put on the ISU uniform and two — Sura Smadi and Kyle Grossnickle — serve in leadership roles.

“Over the past few years, we’ve probably averaged six to seven (Gilbert graduates as members of the ISU band) per year, which has been really cool,” Tinder says.

As good as Gilbert’s band is, Tinder knows it will not be the featured attraction Friday night. When the Cyclones’ 300-plus members step onto the field, they’ll be in the spotlight and with good reason.

“That band is a force of nature, so we know we’re not going to drive the tempo Friday night,” Tinder says which a chuckle. “We’re just going to hang on and go with them. It’s kind of like when our middle schoolers come over and play with us. We’re going to play our tempo and they’re going to hang on for the ride.”

It can be nerve-wracking to try to play alongside a top-tier Division I college band, but that’s also what makes it exciting. And in past performances, Gilbert’s marching band has more than held its own.

Following it’s warm-up at the Intermediate School, the ISU band will parade over to Tiger Stadium at 6:45 p.m. on Friday. Soon after — at 7:15 p.m., just prior to kickoff — the show will officially begin.

You won’t want to miss it.

A HEART OF GOLD

Gilbert 6th grader Zack Langford fights for his life with a smile on his face

Zack Langford has one of those smiles that will instantly melt you. It’s more of a grin really, but it’s permanently plastered to his face. Even when the conversation moves to tough times – the scariest of times, actually – his facial expression never changes. His bright blue eyes never turn dark, his freckled face never furrows, and his immaculately styled hair never tussles.

As the Gilbert Middle School sixth grader sits on a chair at his family’s dining room table, surrounded by his parents, Troy and Amanda, younger brother, Zander, and full-of-energy shih-poo dog, Zazu, he’s not shy talking about his favorite activities since his life was turned upside down. He enjoys riding dirt bikes, fishing, drawing, and playing video games. It’s clear he’s not afraid to talk about his ailment either. He knows his story well going back to his initial symptoms in late 2018, and he’s quick to point out that during one less than pleasant trip to the hospital he was forced to give 27 vials of blood for testing purposes.

He’s been through a lot in his 11 years of life, particularly the last 3½ since his diagnosis, but he shrugs it off like most children would a poor score on a math quiz.

“It’s just kind of normal for me, it’s part of me now,” Zack says with his elbows leaning on the table. “I’ve kind of accepted it.”

 

IN THE BEGINNING

The worry in the eyes of Troy and Amanda is ever-present. How could it not be? They’ve already endured the worst kind of devastation parents can face – the loss of a child – when their first-born, a daughter named Mikayla, passed away at the age of six more than six years before Zack was born.

“Mikayla was born with two different brain abnormalities,” Amanda says. “She was only given a month to live, but lived six years. We waited 6½ years after she died to have Zack, and other than having asthma, he was a healthy kiddo.”

That all changed in December of 2018 though. Just four months after the family moved from their longtime home in Kansas City to central Iowa, Zack was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the muscles of a heart’s ventricles stiffen and are unable to fill with blood. It’s the rarest form of cardiomyopathy, and it commonly leads to progressive heart failure and the need for heart transplant.

There were no symptoms prior to the family’s move to Iowa, and doctors still can’t give an answer to the family’s No. 1 question: Why? One day, Zack was a happy and healthy second-grade boy excited to go to a friend’s birthday party. The next day, the Langford family was staring at an unknown future.

“We went to a birthday party that day, but I was tired, I had no energy, and I didn’t feel the best,” Zack remembers. “We went to Target and Hobby Lobby, and in Hobby Lobby I got dizzy, nauseous, and had blurred vision.”

After a battery of tests at numerous hospitals – including an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram, a cardiac catheterization, and an MRI, just to name a few – the family was given Zack’s diagnosis at the University of Iowa Hospitals.

And just like that, Zack’s world changed. He had to give up things like sports and riding his bike; his little heart just couldn’t handle them.

“It was hard emotionally at first,” Troy says. “One day you’re at the kids’ party in the gymnasium, and the next day you come home and can’t do anything. No baseball, no soccer, no riding bikes, no playing with friends.”

Initially, doctors told the Langfords that Zack would likely need a heart transplant within a year to survive. But aided by medication, his condition stabilized in the early months, something that is not normal in cases such as Zack’s.

“We were fortunate that we caught it,” Troy says. “Usually (at diagnosis, a patient) is in the hospital waiting for a transplant and they stay in the hospital waiting for a transplant.”

Eventually though, the disease took a toll. In March of 2021, Zack was placed onto the heart transplant list at the University of Iowa, and a year later, in March of this year, he was also placed on the transplant list at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

“Zack is the only child that has been dual-listed at Kansas City with another hospital,” Amanda says. “The fact that Children’s Mercy agreed to take on Zack was a blessing in itself.”

Even in these times of turmoil, Zack remains upbeat. He attends classes at Gilbert Middle School on a daily basis, and his positive outlook has an infectious quality to it that inspires everyone.

“Zack’s always upbeat and positive when he has every reason in the world to be upset,” Gilbert Middle School Principal Mike Danilson says. “His positive demeanor and outlook bring people together. It’s hard not to instantly like him and root for him.”

So now Zack, Amanda, Troy, Zander, and Zazu wait and hope. They wait for that call, which could come in at any moment, day or night, and they hope – and hope and hope – that Zack’s other organs aren’t taxed to the point that a transplant won’t be possible. Zack has had what he calls his “bug out bag” packed for a long time, and each night the family members go to bed wondering if a ring of the phone will jar them awake and change their lives yet again.

“At any moment, we could go,” Amanda says.

THE FINANCIAL BURDEN

Amanda and Troy are both originally from the Kansas City area. It’s where their primary support system still resides. And so they’ve asked themselves the question many times: Why aren’t we back there now?

“The biggest reason we haven’t moved is Gilbert Schools,” Troy says. “We were planning on moving back to Kansas City because that’s where a lot of our support is, and you want to be around family and friends. But the kids really liked the school here and made friends, and the school has been great. So we’ve changed our plans to keep the kids here in school.”

The financial burden caused by any medical crisis is immense, but a condition like Zack’s is extraordinary. All of the time off work to shuttle him to appointments in Iowa City and Kansas City, the myriad medications, the tests, the everything – it all adds up quickly.

“Nothing is cheap about being sick,” Troy says. “You try to save, but it goes out faster than it comes in.”

The Langford family recently began working with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) in an effort to fundraise to help cover Zack’s medical expenses. As of Wednesday morning, the family had raised $7,758 with a goal of raising $75,000.

COTA is the nation’s only fundraising organization solely dedicated to raising life-saving dollars to support transplant-ready children and young adults. Every penny in donation made to COTA in honor of a patient goes to pay transplant-related expenses.

To support Zack and the Langford family with a tax-deductible donation, you can visit his COTA website: COTAforHeartWarriorZack.com. Under the EVENTS tab on the website, you can also purchase a HEART WARRIOR ZACK wristband, the same wristband that loosely hangs on Zack’s right arm each day.

There is also a fundraising site – heartwarriorzack.itemorder.com – where T-shirts, sweatshirts, and hats can be ordered, all emblazoned with the Zack Heart Warrior logo that he originally drew himself before he handed it off to a friend to put the finishing touches on. Again, all of the funds raised from the sale of the merchandise will go toward Zack’s medical expenses.

Zack is excited about the possibility of a new heart. Not only will he get to wear what he calls “the cool pajamas” in the hospital, if all goes well he’ll eventually return to normal activities.

He’ll be able to run again. He’ll be able to play some sports again. 

He’ll be able to be a kid again.

STUDENT BY DAY, ENGINEER BY NIGHT

Gilbert senior Mikayla Lauritsen turns her passion into a future

Sitting with her legs tucked underneath her, Gilbert senior Mikayla Lauritsen pushes her hair back behind her ears to reveal a beaming smile on her face as she talks about her passion. It’s an under-the-radar passion, something that probably not a lot of her classmates even know about, but it’s started her on a journey she will follow after she exits high school.

Lauritsen’s love and dedication to it is what makes her chuckle though as she sits in the office of Gilbert Assistant Principal John Ronca on a late August afternoon. Her mind drifts back to the summer of 2019, prior to the start of her freshman year at GHS, and her reluctance to even join the group that she now considers family.

“I had a friend who said, ‘I think you’d be interested in this,’ but I honestly felt obligated to join her at the new student meeting,” Lauritsen said. “But it was probably the best investment I’ve made.”

That investment was in Team Neutrino, an engineering club for Story County students founded at Ames High School in 2011 before it moved to Iowa State University in 2012. Each spring, Team Neutrino competes in the FIRST Robotics Competition with the goal of qualifying for the World Championship.

The build and competition are only part of the team’s mission though. Team Neutrino also spends days, weeks, and months mentoring young students in central Iowa in an effort to highlight the benefits of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

“Getting other kids involved is really, really important,” Lauritsen, who is now in her fourth year with the team said. “We want to be able to teach STEM to the new generation, and we’re willing to help any aspiring engineer with anything they want to do.”

Team Neutrino recently produced its own television show entitled Full STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) Ahead, which airs on Ames Public Access TV (Mediacom channel 121-16). Debuting on Aug. 27, the seven-episode series broadcasts every Saturday.

Team Neutrino began its outreach to aspiring engineers online during the COVID-19 pandemic with Stay At Home STEAM, a Youtube series that ran for nine weeks.

“During quarantine, we were all trying to figure out how to get more kids interested in STEM, so we came up with these activities that would be focused around the principles of STEAM,” Lauritsen said.

As part of its summer outreach program, Team Neutrino teaches a class through the Ames Community School District. It also takes part in summer camps, and attends other events throughout central Iowa to spread its love for engineering.

In some ways, it can be a full-time job. Throw in the additional hours of work and exhaustion — mentally and physically — during competition season and Lauritsen says it’s her team’s version of varsity athletics.

“We say it’s very much like a varsity sport that is played year-around,” she said.

It’s that willingness to give back to her own classmates and the younger generation that impresses Gilbert Principal Cindy Bassett.

“I’m super excited for Mikayla because she has found and spent time with something that she’s so passionate about,” Bassett said. “She’s excelled and helped her team excel, and she just makes a great role model for other high school kids and other kids in the district who want to go into those areas.”

The FIRST Robotics Competition is considered the big-time in Team Neutrino’s world, and in 2022 the group had its most successful season in history. It all began in early January on what is called Kickoff Day, where robotics teams across the country learned about the game that would be played. That’s when strategy and plans were put into place, as teams had only six weeks to build their robot and get it ready to compete in Rapid React, a game that revolves around utilizing the robots to shoot inflatable over-sized tennis balls into a central hub.

“During build season, we’re together probably 20 to 25 hours per week,” Lauritsen said.

Team Neutrino’s 2022 build went quite well, as it was one of only three teams to triple qualify for the World Championship. It won the Engineering Inspiration Award at the Iowa Regional, and then captured the Chairman’s Award at the Minnesota North Star Regional.

At the World Championship in Houston, Team Neutrino became the first Iowa team to win the Championship Engineering Inspiration Award, a fact that Lauritsen relays with pride.

“When we won the event with the robot at the North Star Regional, that was really cool too,” she said.

This season, Lauritsen is taking on an even bigger role with Team Neutrino as a team captain, an honor bestowed upon her during the offseason. She admits there are butterflies in her stomach as she schemes with her teammates to keep Team Neutrino among the most competitive groups in the country.

“I was really excited and also really scared when I found out I was named a captain,” she said. “I was speechless and I wondered how can I live up to these expectations? But then I thought, oh yeah, I have a lot of great people that can help me.

“This past offseason, we did a good job of getting people involved.”

Not only does Team Neutrino continue its outreach program while it prepares for the spring competition season, it also has to constantly fundraise. News flash: it’s not cheap to build a robot, which is why the group — which includes a group of dedicated advisors led by team coach Brian Steward, Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State — is constantly looking for ways to raise funds.

“A lot of people don’t know that it’s really expensive to build a robot,” Lauritsen said. “We raise about $40,000 every year and most of it is through sponsorships.”

Last season, companies such as Apple — yes, THE Apple — and NASA were major donors to the team. So were John Deere, Sauer-Danfoss, and Workiva. In all, some 20 organizations contributed to the team’s cause.

Lauritsen is hopeful the 2023 season will be equally successful to last spring. Afterward, she’ll set her sights on her future as a student at Iowa State next fall.

Want to take a guess at what she plans to major in?

“Mechanical engineering and industrial engineering are the two possible fields at Iowa State,” Lauritsen, who has already been accepted to the college, said. “I’m really interested in manufacturing and how to make things more efficient, but that’s not (offered) at Iowa State.”

Something that began out of reluctance with that initial Team Neutrino meeting has now turned into a potential career for Lauritsen. Sometimes, it’s the chances we take that produce the best results, something Lauritsen now knows first-hand.

To view the 2022 Team Neutrino Chairman’s video, click HERE.