For the second year in a row, the top three finishers at the DCI World Championship Prelims were separated by a point or less, with the Blue Devils topping the field of 40 corps at the first of three days of competition in Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Devils, who earned first place with a score of 97.363, picked up victories in general effect and total visual and kept what could potentially be their seventh undefeated season alive in front of a record Prelims audience — the largest that has gathered at Lucas Oil Stadium since the event moved to Indianapolis in 2009.
“There's nothing else to say other than the fact that I felt ecstatic about that performance,” Blue Devils drum major C.C. Waggoner said. “It was a terrific run-through. It's the start of these three nights of shows, and I've gotta say I've never had a Prelims that was that enjoyable."
Santa Clara Vanguard (2nd, 97.000) continued to hold its spot just behind the Devils on Thursday, while taking the top spots in the percussion and color guard captions. The corps' distance from first place shrank from its most recent gap of 0.625 points on Sunday in Buffalo, New York.
“The growth that this corps has had these past few days — not only as a performing group — but as a family, has just been spectacular,” Vanguard drum major Carl Huang said. “I've never been with a group that's pushed so hard into Finals before. And it's really heartwarming to see everybody fight all the way to the end.”
Just around the corner, Thursday's brass caption-winner Carolina Crown (3rd, 96.363) kept its momentum after having recently pulled within just 0.15 of Vanguard, the closest margin between the two this season.
In an effort to stoke their general effect score at the season's pinnacle, Crown added a few more visual tweaks to its deconstructive-themed show, including a set of tarps laid in the end zone that creates the effect of the field being torn apart.
“It was a little bit of a process,” Crown drum major Ross Werner said. “Especially these past couple of weeks. We've been toying with it for about two weeks now. To see it out on the field is pretty cool.”
While staying within striking distance of the top three, the Bluecoats (4th, 94.638) continued to have The Cavaliers (5th, 94.125) nipping at their heels, as the Green Machine kept within half of a point of the defending champs for the third straight head-to-head meeting.
Boston Crusaders held serve in sixth place, scoring a 93.200 to stay ahead of The Cadets (7th, 92.263), a tight competitor with the Boston corps since early this season. While the 10-time World Champions from Allentown held an edge in general effect, the Crusaders kept their lead thanks to advantages in total visual and music on the scoresheet.
Looking to mount an upset, The Cadets will certainly look to make each of their remaining performances count as the season pushes to the finish line.
“We're trying not to take anything for granted,” drum major Claire Albrecht said. “These are the last few we're going to get, and these are the last few times we're going to be together. I'm really excited to finish strong these last couple days.”
After falling behind at the end of July, Blue Knights (8th, 90.175) defeated Phantom Regiment (9th, 89.150) for the third straight head-to-head meeting, while increasing its lead to its largest since mid-July.
Another hotly-contested battle for a spot in the top 10, the Blue Stars (10th, 87.550) edged back ahead of the Crossmen (11th, 87.425) for the first time since July 15. With the two corps never separated by more than a point this season, the tight competition provides extra motivation going into the season's final push.
“We don't base ourselves off of other corps and other scores,” Crossmen drum major Randall Himes said. “But we are a competitive corps. We have big plans for the future of the Crossmen and that starts this year.”
In the race for the last spot in Saturday's Finals competition, the Madison Scouts (12th, 86.150) kept a significant edge over their closest challengers, as Mandarins held 13th with a score of 84.213.
The Colts (14th, 83.450) earned their highest placement of the season, defeating The Academy (15th, 83.075) for the first time since 2015, largely due to a solid edge in the visual caption.
“I have not felt that kind of energy for quite some time,” Colts baritone player Matt Blaser said. “It's probably been about a year since we've felt this together. The last week, we've really been vibing as an organization and as a drum corps, and I definitely think we're going to bring that kind of energy tomorrow as well.”
This year's Open Class champion continued to put together a historic run, as Vanguard Cadets (16th, 81.500) defeated the Troopers (17th, 81.025) for the first time in their history. A 16th-place finish in Friday's Semifinals would also tie the corps' all-time highest from 2015.
Vanguard Cadets, along with Open Class silver-medalists Blue Devils B (18th, 80.175), found themselves scoring among the World Class ranks once again, after both finished in the top 20 the past three seasons.
“It's amazing to be scoring with the World Class corps,” Briana Yamagata said. “They're always pushing us to do our best, and we never stand for anything less.”
Spirit of Atlanta found itself just behind Blue Devils B in 19th place with a score of 80.050 while fending off Oregon Crusaders (20th, 78.700) and Pacific Crest (21st, 77.788), the two of which have been locked in a tight race for several weeks.
Open Class bronze-medalist Legends (22nd, 76.800) clinched a third consecutive Semifinals appearance, while the newest World Class corps, Genesis, also advanced with a 23rd-place score of 76.125.
Music City (24th, 74.950) — which earned its highest-ever finish at the Open Class Finals on Tuesday in fourth place — will make its way back into the Semifinals for the first time since 2013 after ending in 27th in each of the past three seasons.
In 25th with a score of 74.350, Spartans snuck past Seattle Cascades (26th, 74.125) by mere tenths to earn their sixth-straight spot in the Semifinals.
“The idea of making Semifinals was definitely driving our performance,” Spartans drum major Matt Vayanos said. “We're really happy with what we did today.”
Despite finishing just outside of the Semifinals cut-off for the first time since 2014, members of the Seattle Cascades wrapped up their 2017 season feeling satisfied with their final performance.
“Our motivation was just to come out and do our jobs and leave it out on the field and do it for our age-outs,” Cascades mellophone player Zane Parkerson said. “This is one of the largest age-out classes we have had, so I think that drove our performance today.”
In 27th with a score of 71.613, members of Jersey Surf wrapped up their 2017 season with heads held high after a long and memorable summer tour that recently included the opportunity to perform for the band Snarky Puppy, whose piece "Shofukan" is utilized in the corps' production, "Make It Our Own."
“Every season has its own challenges, and this season is no different,” Surf drum major Katie Liming said. “For me, this season was a story of personal growth and growth as an entire drum corps.”
Louisiana Stars (28th, 71.563) — which earned the title of “Most Improved” Open Class corps this season — moved up significantly from last year's 31st-place finish in just its second year coming to Indianapolis.
Gold (29th, 70.100) also rose by two placements from last year's Prelims, but was closely followed by a newcomer to Indianapolis, as four-time Drum Corps Europe champions THE COMPANY (30th, 70.038) impressed in its first DCI World Championships appearance.
Just over two tenths back from there, 7th Regiment (31st, 69.800) improved its final score from 2016 by just over a point.
In its first trip to Indianapolis since rejoining the Open Class ranks in 2015, Southwind (32nd, 68.838) expanded its lead over Guardians (33rd, 67.838) from Tuesday's Open Class Finals in Michigan City, with the vast majority of its advantage stemming from the general effect caption.
Also capping off its season in Thursday's Prelims, Pioneer took 34th with a score of 65.913.
“This is my fifth season with the corps, my first as a drum major, and my age-out season, so it meant a lot,” Pioneer drum major Joseph Tackett said. “This was definitely my favorite year of the five. Like any season we had a lot of ups and downs, but I'm extremely proud of this drum corps.”
Defeating the likes of Jersey Surf, Gold and THE COMPANY in percussion, River City Rhythm (35th, 65.700) saw its score improve by four points from the 2016 World Championship Prelims, with Raiders picking up 36th with a score of 63.525.
Shadow (37th, 62.000) kept a steady lead over the Colt Cadets (38th, 60.925) in the corps' final meeting of the season. With Thursday's tally, however, members of the Iowa corps improved upon their score from last season's Prelims by nearly five points, while also moving up one position.
“Playing in Lucas Oil Stadium is really unique,” Colt Cadets drum major Adam Goninen said. “The crowd and the atmosphere, getting to play in the big stadium, you hear the echo — you ignore the echo — but you really get the sense of power and sound inside the huge stadium.”
Closing things out on the score sheets, Impulse (39th, 57.550) and Les Stentors (40th, 54.725) also wrapped up their 2017 seasons.
As a rookie age-out having a first and last performance at Lucas Oil Stadium, Thursday's performance for Impulse bass drummer Gino Defusco was extra special.
That stadium — even now standing outside of it, it's surreal,” Defusco said. “I didn't think I'd get into the corps after auditioning earlier this year and now this is a major payoff. I wouldn't trade this experience for anything.”
With competition as tight as ever, the top 25 corps from Thursday's 14-hour event will have a quick turnaround, heading into Friday's Semifinals with a coveted spot in the top 12 on the line.
Watch all 25 corps compete at the DCI World Championship Semifinals on FloMarching.com.