INWOOD, Iowa | Drew Balta's heart sank a bit on Monday as Paul McEntaffer announced the second-place finisher in Class 2A at the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Band Festival at Le Mars Community High School.

McEntaffer follows tradition in announcing the fifth-place finisher in each enrollment category, followed by fourth-place jazz band, and then the third-place band.

The top two bands, second and first place, earn automatic berths in the Iowa Jazz Championships in April in Des Moines. When you're a band director, you want to hear your band announced in second, or better yet, first.

Balta didn't hear his West Lyon jazz band's name announced at the district event in 2015. The band finished seventh out of 14 Class 2A bands that day.

"We finished seventh last year and that was pretty darn good," says Balta, a rookie teacher at the time and one who still isn't sure if West Lyon's jazz band had ever competed for a berth in the Iowa Jazz Championships. The band had never earned a state berth in the past, he knows that much.

Things began to change this winter when the 2016 West Lyon jazz band ventured south for the Bluffs Jazz Fest at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. West Lyon took first place among Class 2A schools. Evan Ver Steeg, a junior trombonist, was named Outstanding Soloist for the entire festival.

Balta began thinking differently about the approaching Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival. Backed by Ver Steeg and a senior leadership quintet of Tori Leuthold, Grace Rens, Lee Dubblede, Rebecca Van Reggenmorter and Grace Gilbertson, the second-year teacher entertained thoughts of a state berth, and he let his musicians know it.

"I had kind of kept the whole thing about Iowa Jazz Championships quiet last year," says Balta, a William Penn University graduate who student-taught at Pella High School, a program known for its outstanding jazz band.

"The kids didn't hear their (school) name announced last year and they expected that," Balta says. "We played on Monday and we stuck around for the awards ceremony."

When McEntaffer listed the Class 2A schools in fifth through second place, he suffered a let-down, if only for a few seconds.

"I figured we got sixth place," he says.

And that's when McEntaffer announced, "First place in Class 2A: West Lyon."

"The kids were shell-shocked," Balta says. "The kids jumped up and some of the girls had some tears. It was a really cool moment, a reward for how hard they have worked."

They're not the only ones. Balta, who had never been in Northwest Iowa before interviewing twice for this job last spring, educated 46 in his band across grades 9-12 last year. The band currently has 66 in the program, a number the teacher projects will grow to 77 by next fall.

The West Lyon band competed in a half-dozen marching competitions during the fall. The pep band plays all four quarters of home basketball games, not heading in after the halftime show like most schools.

"I'm a huge Iowa Hawkeye basketball fan and one of my favorite things about their home games is the pep band," says Balta, a 2010 graduate of Cedar Rapids Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I see having the band as an opportunity late in a game, a chance to play loud and get the crowd into the game."

He's apparently gotten his students into jazz band as well, the interest having necessitated the start of a second jazz band unit at West Lyon.

"That's a good problem to have," he says.

Another issue? Funding. Balta says the trip to the Iowa Jazz Championships will take a few dollars, so the band will attempt to raise some cash by playing live at Marketplace Grill in Inwood on April 1.

Balta says West Lyon wouldn't be making noise in jazz circles across Northwest Iowa were it not for his dedicated students, and several fellow music instructors who have given their time to help a young teacher learn the ins and outs of jazz competition.

"I've been helped out by so many people," Balta says. "Peter Carlson, from Sibley-Ocheyedan, is someone we compete against and yet he never, ever shies away from offering advice and tips to help me out.

"Same goes for Cliff St. Clair at Sheldon High School," Balta adds.

The work, the help, the time commitment all added up to a district title and a spot in the Class 2A lineup at the Iowa Jazz Championships come April.

Will the official behind the microphone announce "West Lyon" during the awards ceremony at IJC? Only time will tell.

Well that, and a lot of jazz jamming between now and then.

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