RICHBURG -- Daniel Dye's band uniform finally fits.
To some, that might not sound like a big deal. But for Dye and his 67 Lewisville High School bandmates, it marks a transformation.
The Lewisville High band has marched at football games for four years sporting another school's colors. The uniforms were already 8 years old when the school bought them from Strom Thurmond High. Buttons popped off. Parents pinned coats to fit, then chased kids out on the field to mend rips and replace pins. Lewisville patches covered Strom Thurmond logos.
"It just looked sloppy," said Gilbert Muller, 18, a senior bass drummer.
"It was like being in someone else's skin," said Dye, a drum major. "I could literally fit myself and my friend in my uniform.
"It's frustrating when you get to a competition and a piece falls off. Those are points taken off if a judge notices."
Last month, Dye, Muller and the others lined up in formation at their home stadium, wearing, for the first time, Lewisville High's blue and gold.
The Chester County school board last summer voted unanimously to spend about $60,000 on new uniforms for two of the district's three high schools -- Lewisville and Chester High. A band uniform averages between $300 and $400.
"It was obvious that they needed them," said school board member Richard Hughes. "They were falling apart. They weren't the right colors."
Two decades have passed since director Mitch Hopper led Lewisville to win the state championship. The band spent 1987 to 1999 among the top performers in the state.
Then things changed.
Hopper left for a job at York High School. Under new directors, the band wasn't the same. Quality suffered. Kids quit.
"When I left in 1999, there were 105 kids," Hopper said. "By Christmas, it was down to 17."
The slump dragged until 2003, when the school hired a new director from Hartsville High, Daniel Nuckolls.
A new beginning
Today, Nuckolls, 30, leads practice from his perch atop what resembles a metal lifeguard tower. He shouts commands like a drill instructor, broadcasting them over loudspeakers. He calls out "weak links" and makes them do push-ups.
The teens have taken to him.
After his first year, Nuckolls said, enrollment doubled from 35 to 70.
"He's very inspirational," Dye said. "He's a counselor, a teacher, an administrator ... a father figure."
Off the field, Nuckolls is fond of quotes. He relies on them often when kids come to him with personal dilemmas.
One quote that band members say gets a lot of mileage: "When you reach the edge of the cliff, God will either teach you to fly or catch you when you fall."
Another: "If the mountain was smooth, you couldn't climb it."
"That really perks everybody up," said 12-year-old saxophone player Sarah LaPort.
For the band, getting new uniforms is one of several recent events that members believe signal a re-emergence.
It started last year when, despite ill-fitting wool garbs and cumbersome cummerbunds, Lewisville beat eight bands for the S.C. Upper State championship. Shortly after, the Chester County Council declared Dec. 3 to be "Lewisville High Marching Lions Band Day."
Next, Nuckolls brought back Hopper as assistant director.
When Hopper, 43, returned, he said, "I saw the kids playing the same instruments I bought in 1988."
He quickly spent $5,100 of his own money to replace the entire drumline, held together mostly by duct tape.
Newly enthused parents lobbied area businesses, who agreed to buy a trailer so the band no longer had to rent U-Hauls to lug instruments around the state.
"We even got an ice machine in the band room," Nuckolls said.
On Saturday, Lewisville will compete in Blythewood. Next weekend is the Upper State championship in Clinton. If the band places in the top six, it'll go on to compete for the state championship at Woodmont High on Oct. 25.
The band's hopes are high. But a new identity brings new pressure.
Now that people have supported the group, the band doesn't want to let them down, Dye said.
"Ever since we won Upper State, we just got all these people paying attention," said bass-drummer Muller. "People know who we are now."