On New Year's Eve, 14 adults from Northwest Tucson spent 2003's precious remaining hours in buses with about 60 high school students, and they loved it.

The buses were destined for Pacific Bell Park stadium, where their sons and daughters were providing entertainment for spectators of the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl.

"It's almost beyond words," parent Joyce Contrades said, providing real-time commentary from a bus for a Northwest EXPLORER reporter by cellular phone. "It's like a surreal experience."

The Nighthawk Vanguard Marching Band, in only its second year of competing, would soon blast a crowd of more than 20,000 with its big sound.

The previous night, the Ironwood Ridge High School band had swept up five out of the bowl's six band awards, including the honor of performing in the pre-game show by itself.

It was an adventure, parent Brian Cochran pointed out from a bus, taking his turn with the cellular phone.

"Oh my god," he said. "I can see the words Pacific Bell Park right in front of me. We're coming."

The parent chaperones had been basking in the band members' excitement ever since the first glimpses of the San Francisco Bay Bridge and city skyline three days ago incited jumping, pointing and waving at strangers.

They had accompanied the teen-agers to Chinatown, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Hard Rock Café.

They said the students deserved it all.

Qualifying as college bowl entertainment is not itself a big honor, according to Mark Robinette, the director of the band portion of the bowl's entertainment. Any band that can afford the trip will have a spot in one of seven Bowl Games of America-affiliated bowls' half-time shows.

Affording the trip, though, is a feat.

At $550 a person, the San Francisco trip required vigorous fund-raising. It required a well-planned car show, rock concert and celebrity auction, along with the typical cookie-dough-sale-type fund-raisers.

Parents and band members raised about $20,000, in part from state tax credits, through which each tax-paying household was allowed to contribute up to $250.

But it was all worth it when the awards banquet arrived.

Four bands, three from California and one from Oro Valley, had competed the proceeding days for six trophies. The first one, for best drum majors, went to Ironwood Ridge High School.

The second, for best color guard, went to a California school.

The third trophy, for best percussion, went to the Oro Valley gang.

The last three trophies, which were distributed with less formality than the first three, were general effect, music, and marching and maneuvering.

"Why belabor the point," parents later remembered the announcer saying, "Ironwood Ridge High School."

At the pre-game show on New Year's Eve, the crowd became quiet as the Nighthawk Vanguard Marching Band blasted its first notes.

Large video screens in the stadium provided giddy parents with drum major close-ups and a slow scan of the drum line.

Parents heard speculation in the stands about whether the proud marchers belonged to either of the football teams' colleges - Boston College or Colorado State University.

Just as they had done at their school's football games all season, the Ironwood Ridge wind players crouched down and performed a tribal-style dance as the drum line went wild.

"Off the field they may be typical teen-agers; but once the drum major calls them to attention, they've got their game face on, so to speak," Contrades had said from a bus earlier that evening. "You can't help but have tears in your eyes."

Before the night's end, fireworks sprayed over the Bay Bridge, celebrating the arrival of 2004.

Two days later, parents and students returned to Ironwood Ridge High School at 3:30 a.m. to the sound of celebratory horn honking. A massive bouquet of balloons welcomed them, along with a banner stating, "Nighthawks are superior."

Eight hours later, a group of parent chaperones joined a Northwest EXPLORER reporter at a local restaurant to reminisce about the experience of seeing their progeny in glory.

"Every parent not on the field - we all had tears in our eyes," parent Brenda Carle said. "It was the most intense feeling."

They talked with relish about participating in this experience of a lifetime - the day their sons and daughters performed where the San Francisco Giants play.

"Six months from now the kids will see that park on TV," parent Tom Carle said, "and it will be like, 'Oh, I played there.'"

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