The opposing player crouched in the team huddle during a timeout, trying desperately to hear the coach call the next play. But the noise was deafening.
The Siegel Center crowd was going crazy, urged on by one of the top pep bands in the country. The player, as well as his teammates, seemed dazed as one of the band’s members aimed his tuba directly at the huddle.
Talk about home court advantage. It’s a phenomenon growing in strength at Virginia Commonwealth University, thanks in large part to the school’s pep band, the Peppas.
“My personal goal is to help our team, to be as distracting as I can be to the opposing team,” said Trey Walden, the tuba player who takes great pride in his ear-piercing play. “Judging by the looks I get from the visiting team, I know it’s working.”
Walden is one of more than a hundred VCU students and alumni to play with the Peppas, a nationally renowned group of musicians and sports fanatics. The band plays for both the VCU men’s and women’s basketball teams at all home games and often travels during the tournament season. They also play for other school sporting events, including soccer, volleyball, and field hockey, as well as community events around Richmond.
“The Peppas are quite simply synonymous with VCU,” said Dave Giffard, VCU men’s soccer coach. “Every school has its own identity, and they are a huge part of ours.”
The Peppas are made up of students from many different academic fields, but they all have a passion for music and sports. Any student can audition, with nearly everyone making the cut. The number one requirement? Heart.
“Sure, they need to be able to play their instrument, but it’s about so much more than that,” said Ryan Kopacsi, the band’s director since 1998. “It’s about passion, dedication, originality, and creativity. Our heart is what makes us unique. We are a little unorthodox.”
That might be an understatement.
Stick around for an entire Rams game, and you’ll spot three Peppas dressed as Teletubbies. Others prefer cow costumes, complete with udders. Band members have been known to hop around on stilts and pull off their pants to reveal American-flag boxers and tights. Kopacsi is famous for ripping off his dress shirt to conduct in a less restrictive tank top.
“We are a little outside the box,” Kopacsi said. “Our main job is to help our team win. We want to get in the opposing team’s heads. We don’t want to be like every other pep band out there. We won’t play the music that most pep bands play.”
VCU has a repertory of about sixty-five songs. The band will play everything from rap and rock to classical music, depending on the flow of the game. Kopacsi will select intense and intimidating songs, for example, when the team makes a big run.
“They play with heart,” said Torey Burston, a junior guard for the Rams. “They’ll play some of our favorite songs during a timeout to get us going. Their music really has a power to it.”
But there’s more to the Peppas than just sound. They’ve got the moves too. Band members are constantly dancing, jumping, kicking, whipping, and waving. “Ryan gives us pep talks before games,” said Cathy Pfrang, a sophomore studying elementary education. “He talks about playing with passion, about separating ourselves from the crowd. We really feed off each other.”
Pfrang, who plays the trombone, didn’t like basketball before enrolling at VCU. But then a friend told her about the Peppas. She went to a meeting to learn more during her freshman year, and still wasn’t immediately sold.
“I was worried about the time commitment,” she said. “But now I realize it keeps me on schedule. It makes me more responsible because I had to learn to balance my schoolwork with the band. It’s made me more productive.”
And it’s turned her into a huge basketball junkie.
“Now I watch every game when the team is on the road,” she said. “I can’t get enough of the excitement.”
VCU invites middle and high school students from around the country to play alongside them at the annual School
Band Day, encouraging creativity from the start. That’s how Walden first learned of the Peppas.
“I was terrified because it was a university, and I figured everyone would be super technical with their music,” he said. “But it was the complete opposite. Everyone was so welcoming. Everyone has so much fun.”
Before Band Day, Walden was leaning toward ODU as his college of choice. He quickly changed his tune.
“You could tell they cared about their music,” he said. “Sometimes people play just to play. But not here. Once I had that experience, I knew this was the school for me.”
Walden graduated in December with a degree in criminal justice and continues to play at every event.
“I plan on doing so for as long as I can,” he said. “I don’t think I could live without music.”
Consistently ranked as one of the top pep bands in the country by BleacherReport.com, VCU took the trophy during the NCAA Final Four Battle of the Bands in 2011. The national media, including the Today Show, has featured the Peppas, and the group’s performances can be found all over YouTube. And the Peppas recently released their second album, “Havoc Suite.”
“I am so proud of the recognition, but more than anything, I am surprised,” Kopacsi said. “If you had told me eighteen years ago when I started that it would be like this, I would have laughed at you. But here we are.”
When Kopacsi took over the reins as a 19-year-old sophomore, the roster totaled about a dozen. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 160. About 120 Peppas play regularly.
“They are a breath of fresh air,” said Mo Alie-Cox, a junior who plays forward for the Rams. “By far, they are the best I’ve ever seen. They do this dance before the games, a traditional war dance. That’s pretty cool. Where else are you going to see that?”
It’s that unique vibe that attracted 18-year-old Tyler Coleman to VCU. As a junior in high school in Chester, he played trumpet with the Peppas for a day – and a whole new world opened.
Coleman, now a VCU freshman studying music, is autistic. He never imagined he would make the Peppas, much less travel to Madison Square Garden in New York to perform with the group during a basketball tournament late last year.
“He is high-functioning, but we didn’t think he was mature enough to take on something like that,” said his father, Mark Coleman. “But he has grown so much. Being a part of the Peppas has been a great thing for him. They have been so accepting. He has gained confidence and is now so much more outgoing. We are certainly very proud of him.”
Tyler, too, can see he’s come a long way.
“I’ve gotten much more comfortable,” he said. “I’m not as intimidated as I used to be. It’s so great to be part of something so huge.”
His father, a graduate of Virginia Tech, never imagined he’d change school colors, but that’s the power of the Peppas. He’s traded in his maroon and orange for black and gold.
“There is just so much pride here,” he said. “[Kopacsi] constantly tells his kids, ‘To be a Peppa is an honor. Honor it.’ That speaks to why they are so good. The kids are so committed to honoring the reputation of both the school and the band.”
It’s a job they cherish.
“We are definitely all proud to be part of this band, part of this school,” said the tuba-playing Walden. “I love the music, but the other thing is the impact we have. So many people enjoy our music, and that in itself is so rewarding. It’s a gift we want to keep giving for as long as we can.”
The Peppas — Know Your Fun Facts!
Did you know?
The name “Peppas” started as a joke, but it stuck. According to band director Ryan Kopacsi, several core members were sitting around a few years ago brainstorming what to call themselves. “VCU Pep Band” sounded boring, so someone said, “Well, we play with a lot of pep, so let’s call ourselves the Peppas.” The rest is magic.
• Membership has grown from about a dozen to more than 120 since the late 1990s.
• The Peppas performed in 110 events last year. About 90 percent were sporting events, the rest community events.
• Band members have a song list of about 135 songs – about half are played regularly.
• The Peppas award about thirty-five stipends to students who meet a playing, energy, and ability-to-travel standard. Stipends range from $400 to $1,500.
• Band members play nearly every instrument imaginable, including the bagpipes and accordion.
Popular songs on the Peppas play list:
• “War” – The lyrics tell the story. You don’t want to go to war with the Rams.
• “Africa” – Made famous by the band Toto. The rumor is if the crowd doesn’t say, “Bless the rains down in Africa” before the game starts, then the Rams could lose.
• “It’s Havoc You Fear”– Derived from the music of the song “400 Degreez,” which was made famous by the rapper Juvenile, this song was renamed “It’s Havoc You Fear” to fit in with VCU’s defensive style of play.
• “Wrecking Ball” – Made famous by pop singer Miley Cyrus, it is extremely popular because of the space kitty poster unfurled during the song to distract opponents shooting free throws.
• The band often performs the Haka before home games to psych out their opponents. The Haka is a war chant created by the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, and popularized by the New Zealand national men’s rugby union team, the All Blacks.
Leader of the Pack
Ryan Kopacsi was a 19-year-old sophomore playing with the VCU pep band when he was nearly kicked out of the group.
“I was a bit troublesome,” he admitted. “I was a bit cocky and acted out.”
So in 1998, as the Siegel Center was being built, the athletic director and the director of marketing called him into an office and told him to shape up or ship out.
Then they offered him the position of band director.
“I think they wanted someone with a lot of energy, and I certainly had that,” Kopacsi said. “They just wanted me to channel it for good.”
Has he ever.
With a roster that has doubled in less than two years, students from all academic backgrounds are clamoring to be part of what CBS Sports has called “the best pep band in college sports.” While the band, called the Peppas for the last six to eight years, is nationally known for its intense musical antics during games, it is applauded locally for its family vibe.
Kopacsi encourages members to continue with the band even after they graduate. And once every season, the band invites students from any middle or high school in the nation to come play alongside them during their School Band Day.
“It’s not all about music,” Kopacsi said. “It’s about making our community stronger. What we try to do is teach life lessons.”
Kopacsi forms lasting relationships with band members, often serving as not only their band director, but their mentor.
“I care about these kids,” he said. “When they are faced with difficult decisions, we go out to lunch and talk about it. They don’t just show up and play music. This is not a company. It’s family.”
On game nights, members of the Peppas play with heart and soul, doing everything in their power to give the Rams an edge. They also give it their all at fundraising events, city parades, festivals, and other community events – working hard to make Richmond the best it can be.
“They bring joy to so many people,” said Mo Alie-Cox, a forward on the Rams basketball team. “By going out in the community, they help spread the VCU name and the VCU spirit. They are definitely part of the team.”
Chris Crowley, who graduated from VCU in 2006 with a degree in music education, was so inspired by the group that he started the Rams fan club, the Rowdy Rams. He continues to play the clarinet with the Peppas a few times each season.
“These are truly people who care about playing music together and making peoples’ lives brighter,” he said. “They bring a sense of enthusiasm wherever they perform. They have so much passion, it’s hard not to love them.”
It’s that kind of sentiment that keeps Kopacsi at the helm. He planned on stepping down from the part-time, paid position a few years ago, but changed his mind after dozens of people encouraged him to stay. He also works full time as a Richmond firefighter.
“I must have received fifty voice mails from people asking me to stay,” he said. “It was very humbling. The bottom line is I love this school and this city. We play with passion no matter where we go. People notice that and they like it. We are not about perfection, but we are about improvement.”
Peppas members don’t have to be the most talented musicians in the world, Kopacsi said. They obviously need to know how to play their instrument of choice, but they also must be committed to an incredibly hectic schedule, often playing several times a week during the busy basketball season. And they must play with the passion, energy, and the heart that has made the Peppas famous.
“We play in front of a lot of people,” Kopacsi said. “And it doesn’t matter where we go, that commitment must be the same in everything we do. These are the types of life lessons I try to instill, because they will serve you well no matter where you go and no matter what you do.”
What a Pair of Peppas!
The couple that plays music together, stays together.
Just ask Mitchell and Mindee Reed.
The two high school sweethearts continued their romance at VCU, sharing a special bond as members of the Peppas. Their romance blossomed as they played side-by-side in front of thousands of devoted Rams fans. Their relationship solidified as they traveled with the team to tournaments and as they performed at countless community events.
“Having these experiences together was certainly a way for us to stay connected,” Mindee said. “We continue to cherish them.”
Mindee, who plays the piccolo, graduated in 2011 with a degree in biology; her husband, a trumpet player, graduated a year earlier with a degree in music education. The couple married in 2014.
“A lot of couples who are together in high school go by the wayside in college,” Mitchell said. “They tend to go in different directions. But this kept us together.”
Even though they live and work – both are teachers – in the West Point area, they remain active with the Peppas, rarely missing a chance to perform.
“It’s all about the passion the band has for VCU,” Mitchell said. “A lot of bands are there to make an appearance and play a few songs. Not us. We are there to help our team win.”
Playing alongside others who share that passion creates bonds that time cannot weaken.
“The Peppas…we are like family,” Mindee said. “We are lifelong friends. My husband and I are so proud to be part of that family. Music has had such an impact on our lives. It will forever be part of who we are.”
VCU photos courtesy: Scott Brown Photography