All eyes were on the 32 color guard members as they launched their flags into the air and carefully maneuvered around the 214-member band during last Friday night's first performance in front of hundreds at the home-opener football game.
"I like it when we have a big hit in the routine and we are doing a big toss and the crowd goes wild," said Lexie Mohr, a junior color guard member.
Audience members watched as an experiment went horribly wrong as the color guard infected the band members with a virus.
"At the beginning of the show, we have a group of doctors making a scientific breakthrough so they're happy, and then the music changes as the virus pops up from behind the table and takes everything over and starts to spread and then the virus comes out from off the sideline and all of the chaos breaks lose," M-S color guard coach Kari Marino said.
This year, the color guard members will dress in black attire alongside their bandmates wearing orange outfits to signify the virus' spread. The color guard members' flags even have a biohazard symbol to identify that they are indeed spreading the virus.
"The audience will have to find how many band members become infected with the disease and who survives," M-S color guard coach Justine Hellmer added.
Competitions and performances aside, both coaches hope the memories made on and off the field are ones that last a lifetime.
"It's a second family really," junior member Lexi Watkins said. "We have individual families with all of the captains, but then we all get together eventually and work together on different sections until we get it all. We're helping each other and it's just a lot of fun."
Mohr joined color guard as a way to challenge herself and express herself.
"The music is really complicated and fast so our routine counts aren't always how the band is marching," she said. "Our routines are usually in eighths or 16ths."
But for Mohr, nothing beats the feeling than when the group keeps perfect rhythm.
"I like as a whole being in time and having that momentum, all of us together."
Senior Reilly Farren said she "fell in love" with the activity after her friend made her try out for the group.
"My friend sort of forced me to try out because she refused to go alone," she joked. "At that point, I was just a freshman and she was a junior so there was kind of an age difference, but after that, I just kept coming back. I really, really enjoy it and I love the people I get to spend it with."
Farren admitted she's looked into a few drum corps groups for college, but right now she just wants to enjoy the moment.
I'm not really sure yet so we'll see," she added.
Come next year, Farren will miss the long bus rides to and from competition she experiences with her group members.
"Just being all together and sometimes literally piling on top of one another," she joked. "So some literal bonding. It's great just to have a family and friendship between everyone."
Junior Cora Walker takes delight in seeing how each year's performance pieces together.
"I love just how it all comes together and how awesome it looks," she said.
Her favorite moments often take place before the performances when the group gets ready together.
"We all just have fun and we're laughing and it's great," she said. "We're like a huge, dysfunctional family," she joked. "We all work together, we all work hard, we all sweat, tears, everything just all together to make this show and they all get to enjoy it and it's awesome."
Preparations for the color guard's performances began in March. Staff sat down and listened to the band's music and discussed the guard's role and characters played in the performance.
For Marino, who is a 1993 M-S grad and a fifth-grade teacher at Urbana's Thomas Paine Elementary School, the preparations are much different than what she experienced as a performer.
"When I was in high school, it was just, 'Hey you, learn the choreography and there's your show,'" she said, "But now it's much like a theater on the field."
Marino continued her color guard performances with the Marching Illini while studying at Parkland College and eventually joined Illinois State University's guard.
"I like to pass on what I enjoyed most about high school, which was the color guard, to everyone else," she said. "We all have our own thing that drives us, and this was my thing, and if I can get as many people involved in that and give them the feeling of accomplishment, then that's what I'm going to do."
Hellmer is a special education teacher at the high school and was also a color guard member from 2011-12. She enjoys the one-on-one time with the students and helping them learn the basics.
"I like the personal time I get with them and bonding with them and being a mentor to them," she said. "If they're having a bad day, I'm happy that some of them come to me, and now that I'm a teacher at the high school, they'll come down to my room and visit with me, even though they're not in my class and I love that."
Color guard members, similar to the marching band, endure a rigorous practicing schedule. Auditions began in March. A minicamp took place in June, followed by two weeks of three-day practices with the intensity only increasing to two a days. Now the color guard resumes its three-day-a-week rehearsals.
"I just want them to be proud of themselves when they walk off the field," Hellmer said. "I don't care if we win or lose, I just want them to be happy with how they did."
Marino knows the experiences will be something the color guard members cherish for a lifetime."We have a lot of alumni that will come back, and not just on homecoming," Marino said. "They'll message me on Facebook, 'Hey, I saw the guard and they look great.'"
"As an instructor or as a teacher, you have pride in what you do, and Mahomet is very well known for their fine arts program and their marching band," Marino added. "That's what Mahomet's proud of and what they excel at."