Sussex Central graduate a marching band link in Clemson’s title repeat bid

The Ables family from rural Georgetown will be rooting for Clemson in the Jan. 13 college football championship game against top-ranked LSU. From left, Kristen Ables, Nicholas Ables, Zach Ables (a freshman member of the Clemson Tiger Band) and Ben Ables. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

GEORGETOWN — The thrilling Fiesta Bowl outcome between Clemson and Ohio State undoubtedly struck a sweet note for 2019 Sussex Central High School graduate Zach Ables and his family.

And it sets the stage for an interesting, undoubtedly rare championship experience.

His senior year at Sussex Central, Zach was a member of the Golden Knight Marching Band that supported Sussex Central’s pioneering state championship run in 2018 — the school’s first-ever state title in football.

Now a freshman at Clemson University, Zach hopes to experience national championship laurels in bigtime college football in New Orleans Monday, Jan. 13 when No. 3 Clemson, the defending national champion, seeks a repeat against top-seeded LSU in a much-ballyhooed clash of unbeaten Tigers.

Zach, the 18-year-old son of Kristen and Ben Ables of Georgetown, plays the mellophone in the heralded Clemson University Tiger Band that will be in the halftime spotlight during the gridiron climax to the 2019 college football season.

Both teams roll into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 14-0. Clemson is the Atlantic Coast Conference champ. LSU is the champ from the Southeastern Conference.

“LSU better watch out, because we’re coming!” says Zach.

Interestingly, Zach, an all-state-caliber musician all four years at Sussex Central, was undecided about continuing his music playing career at the collegiate level.

“Everyone was telling me, ‘Do it. It’s going to be great.’ But I was kind of worried about not having any free time, because I know how much time it takes,” said Zach, who is majoring in music production at Clemson. “It has been an experience that I don’t think I could get anywhere else. I’m so glad I chose Clemson for that reason.”

“Zach was really on the fence about whether he wanted to keep on going in music,” said Zach’s father, the band instructor at Sussex Central. “You do get a little stigma. Not everybody in high school is in band and it’s not always the ‘cool’ thing to do. Going in, Zach wanted to major in music and be part of music production. But there were no requirements that he had to be in any ensembles or different things.”

As the audition tape deadline neared, Zach decided to give it a shot.

“He finally said, ‘Let me try it and see what happens,’” said Mr. Ables.

Zach Ables of Georgetown is a member of the Clemson University Tiger Band that will showcase its musical talent during the college football championship between LSU and Clemson Jan. 13 in New Orleans. Submitted photo

“He needed to find his own niche,” said Ms. Ables, a science instructor at SCHS. “I just didn’t want him to lose his music because he is very talented. He is told that, but he doesn’t always agree.”

“We know his talents,” said Mr. Ables. “And we’re trying to be able to let him explore a little bit, too, to figure out his life because it’s not ours.”

“They have been saying this entire time, ‘It’s my choice’ and everything, but everyone was secretly rooting for me to do it,” said Zach.

For that he is forever grateful.

“I have got to do things I would never expected I would have been able to do,” Zach said. “It’s unreal.”

At Sussex Central, Zach auditioned for all-state ensembles every year. He made chorus and band every year. His junior and senior years he made all-state orchestra. His senior year, he made first chair French Horn in the state of Delaware, and orchestra.

“I was in all the music ensembles in school so it’s kind of expected to be like that,” said Zach. “It’s kind of like a reputation I try to live up to, I guess.”

At Sussex Central, he was one of about 65 to 80 marching band members.

At Clemson he is one of several hundred fish in a much bigger pond. The Tiger Band features about 350 musicians. Counting guard, dancers and everyone else, the band tally is closer to 400.

“It’s made me appreciate more little things,” said Zach. “Being in a band with so few people I had connections with every single person in the band. But now, I don’t know half the people in the band. I either have never spoke to them or never met them. You just can’t with that many people. So, I kind of like having that aspect where I am constantly meeting new people and constantly learning about other people’s background and stuff like that.”

“Just talking with different people about their backgrounds and what they have done and everything, it has really helped me grow as a person, to be honest,” said Zach.

The Clemson Tiger Band’s mantra is “Shakin’ the Southland.” Their Clemson “Tiger Rag” is the song that gets the earth moving.

“They call us the band that shakes the southland,” says Zach. “I think it’s a good motto for us, because 350 band members all playing as loud as they can, I would say it shakes something.”

Zach Ables, a 2019 Ssussex Central graduate, finds himself in the television spotlight as a freshman member of the Clemson University Tiger Band at Clemson’s road game against Louisville. Submitted photo

Unlike high school, the Tiger Band does a different show for every home game, meaning extra preparation and rehearsal drills. “It’s not the same thing. You’re hearing new music every single game,” said Zach. “We had five separate shows we had to learn this year.”

Band camp in the heat of August was a cram session. “We learned pregame and our first show,” Zach said.

Clemson’s band performs at all home games in the 81,500-seat Clemson Memorial Stadium venue affectionately known as “Death Valley.” This season, the band also played at halftime of the Carolina Panthers’ first home game.

Zach recalls the incredible experience, waiting to take the field for pregame in Clemson’s home opener.

“Oh my gosh, literally nothing compares,” he said. “We line up in the tunnels and you’re just looking out and don’t know how many people are out there, because you can only see the student section, which is always filled. As soon as you exit that tunnel, and everyone is cheering it just hits you. As soon as I ran out there, it hit me: this is epic; this is insane. It hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s so cool.”

Zach says the band is very popular with fans — and Coach Dabo Swinney.

“I have been so surprised by the amount of people that literally say, ‘‘We’re staying through halftime so we can see the band because you guys are just that amazing.’ Honestly, it’s a new level of respect,” said Zach. “In high school you didn’t really get that. When you get to college … and you have that respect from the fans, it brings a whole new level and energy to it that just motivates everyone.”

“The first day of band camp, Dabo came and talked to us, saying you guys are the spirit. You guys are what helps get the atmosphere and get everyone pumped and hyped,” said Zach.

Mr. Ables said that also was the case during Sussex Central’s championship ride in 2018.

“John Wells, our football coach, always purposely came to the band and was very supportive. He said that ‘you guys were the ones to help us with the victories. You’re there. You’re playing in the stands. You’re encouraging us,’” said Mr. Ables.

On the road

Zach traveled with the band for one regular-season road game — Louisville.

“It’s kind of like a seniority thing, where the seniors get to pick first. I got to go to Louisville, which was great by the way. It was such a fun trip,” he said. “But for the ACC championship (62-17 over Virginia in Charlotte) the entire band went, and through all the bowl games the entire band goes, too.”

He performed with the band for both pregame and halftime at the Fiesta Bowl. For the national championship game, he’ll play mellophone — a French Horn-type instrument for marching band — for the halftime show.

“I technically am a ‘shadow,’ which means I switch out for every other game for pregame because we don’t have enough spots on the field for everyone,” said Zach. “Which is OK, because I am still going to do halftime.”

Sussex Central graduate Zach Ables, a Clemson University freshman, will be performing with the Tiger Band at halftime of the college football national championship game against LSU on Jan. 13 in New Orleans. Submitted photo

Zach got a taste of major college bowl atmosphere Dec. 28 in Scottsdale, Arizona as Clemson rallied to beat No. 2 seed Ohio State 29-23 in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl.

Now, the scene shifts east, to New Orleans and the Superdome, the venue for some of the most memorable events in sports history.
Home for New Year’s holiday, Zach returned to Clemson Saturday. The band leaves for New Orleans next Saturday, Jan. 11.

Perfecting perfection

Clemson, which crushed Alabama 44-16 in last season’s title game, is bidding for perfection and a third national championship under coach Swinney, and fourth overall in school history.

In some ways, perfection is the goal of the Tiger Band.

“It’s not the same level of perfection as the football team, because one little error will mess them up,” said Zach. “But, for example, if one person misses a step-off or something like that — and if everyone else gets it — the eyes go directly to that person. With a 300-plus person band that sticks out like nothing else. We drill that into our heads and get that done. So that level of perfection is there, but normally it is a level of perfection, but it is not as perfect like football team.”

With hundreds of musicians, one sour note can easily be covered by others in tune.

“You don’t have to be ‘perfect’ with your music,” he said.

Festive Fiesta!

Trailing with time winding down in the fourth quarter, Clemson rallied for what proved to be the winning touchdown when quarterback Trevor Lawrence connected with Travis Etienne on a 34-yard TD with 1:49 left. It capped a 94-yard scoring march.

While Zach estimates Ohio State Buckeye fans in the stands outnumbered those from Clemson by about 3 to 1, Tiger fans were certainly vocal.

“We were probably the loudest ones,” Zach said. “It was such a crazy time.”

Zach’s most memorable moment came just before halftime — with the Tiger band waiting in the wings at field level — when QB Lawrence scampered 67 yards for a touchdown, bringing the Tigers, who trailed 16-0 at one point, to within two, 16-14 with the point-after.

“We were singing ‘Tiger Rag,’ in front of the Ohio State band and right behind their football team,” he said. “That’s it. That was my moment I will never forget.”

Support from back home

Chances are Zach’s parents and younger brother Nicholas will be watching the championship game from their home near Millsboro. They attended one Clemson home game, a 52-10 conquest of Charlotte Sept. 21.

“I wish we could be there more,” said Zach’s mom. “It’s hard coming from being at the same high school with him, seeing everything he is performing all the time … and now we don’t get to see it. We went once. We’re going to try to get down there more. It’s just hard. We (SCHS) have football.”

Oddsmakers have Clemson the underdog, by about 6 points.

Not in Zach’s book.

“I have Clemson 27-24,” he said. “We have Dabo, a young, super talented defense that stepped up big in the last game. Now that we know that we are capable of doing this, I think we are going to step up. ‘Sunshine Lawrence’ is going pull his weight. He is to talented. Everything that he brings to the field is reflected on everyone else there. He brings a whole level of passion and heart to the game.”