The Virginia State University “Trojan Explosion” marching band is off to a hot start according to the inaugural ESPN Band of The Year rankings.
VSU is ranked third in the Division II/NAIA rankings, released late last month on HBCU Gameday. It is the highest-ranked band in the CIAA and the highest amongst Division II HBCUs with only NAIA bands Florida Memorial and Langston University ranked above it.
The Trojan Explosion is led by Dr. Taylor L. Whitehead, a Virginia State University alumnus who served as assistant band director for a decade. He was named Director of Marching and Pep Bands on an interim basis in 2022 and full-time earlier in this year.
“It’s always been in my heart, but just glad to be back in this capacity and leading the Trojan Explosion,” Dr. Whitehead told HBCU Gameday after his band’s halftime performance against Shaw in Durham.
The Shaw game came less than 24 hours after the rankings were released. The list will be reduced to the top 10 bands in late October and top five in late November before the top two bands in Division I and D2/NAIA will be invited to the championship on Dec. 15.
“Well, it’s early in the season. We had a pretty good start, but from here it’s onward and upward. We’re not shooting for the number three spot. We want to go on up to the number one spot,” Dr. Whitehead said. “We want to ensure that our band — what we consider to be the best band in the CIAA, and one of the best bands in D2 — is in Atlanta for the national championship.”
The national championship will take place in Atlanta at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The competition is something that excites Dr. Whitehead.
“It’s a really exciting time. I started as a high school band for 20 years and competed in these type of competitions all the time,” he said. So with college bands, it has always been about bragging rights and everybody always said they were the best. But to now have the opportunity to finally crown a group the best. It’s just an exciting time and we’re working hard. We really want to turn it up a notch as we go into the second half and the back end of the season.
HBCU bands travel to varying levels, with some hitting the road extensively while others stick close to home. The Virginia State University marching band has hit the road extensively, traveling up I-95 to Washington D.C., down I-85 to Raleigh and Charlotte and even flying out to Houston for the National Battle of The Bands. Dr. Whitehead says he feels it’s important to get the type of exposure his students deserve.
“We think it’s very important for our students that are working every week coming to practice to get out there and showcase their talents,” he said.
Bands are judged once a month based on a performance they are allowed to submit themselves.
“We submitted our halftime show from Charlotte,” Dr. Whitehead said. “The energy was it was on an all-time high. The crowd was engaged. I thought the music sounded pretty good, so we submitted that. But I know that we’re going to go up from there.”
Virginia State University ranked second in auxiliary, fourth in drum majors, eighth in musicality and fourth in percussion. It did not rank in percussion, however, which is something that Dr. Whitehead recognized as something to work on. His students were well aware of the rankings as well, and he says they took pride in them while knowing the Trojan Explosion will need to continue to stay on its toes as things heat up in October.
“I mean, they can see the work every day,” he said. “We coming in, they can see the progress, they can see the growth. And that’s what it’s about. And making sure that it’s just continued progress. That we grow as an educational institution, But musically — in this program — as well.”