As the first half of the Gator Bowl comes to a close on New Year's Day in Florida, college football fans across the country will head for the bathrooms, stock up on snacks, and prepare for the second half.

At Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, 17 high school marching bands will join those from the University of Virginia and Texas Tech on the field for "British Invasion" - a medley of rock songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and other Brit bands.

In the midst of the sea of plumed hats, batons, color guards and brass sections will be the Unionville High School marching band, completing the most successful season in the program's history with an appearance at a nationally televised bowl game.

The halftime performance will cap five days in which 76 of the band's 79 members will be driven 825 miles for one last competition and, it hopes, another successful show.

On Dec. 20, the band gathered one last time for a three-hour practice before heading south. Senior Matt Bracciante, one of the drum captains, led drum-line practice in the choir room. The skinny, shaggy-haired teen uttered the two beats -

dut, dut

- and the drum line blasted in on the third.

The four bass drums boomed on alternating beats, split up at increasing distances by the patterns played by the snares and the tenors. (Tenors are sets of five tom-toms fused together; Bracciante is a tenor drummer.) The drum line was more a drum semicircle. Each student stared straight ahead, no smile, no laughs; the only break in Bracciante's concentration was the occasional grimace after an apparent missed beat.

Down the hall, Kristin Litzenberg, a junior and drum major (one of the people in charge of conducting the band in the field), led the brass and woodwinds as they warmed up.

"Number one! Set!" said Litzenberg, the daughter of band director Scott Litzenberg. "Guys, stop talking, please! We've got to get through these warm-ups!"

Her father and her mother, Mary, were attending to some last-minute trip details in the director's office. Soon they broke up; Scott Litzenberg sat in on the brass while his wife headed off to the auditorium stage to lead the color guard.

"There's been a lot of talent and ability here since my first day. The problem is the kids just didn't know what to do with it," Scott Litzenberg, who started at Unionville 10 years ago, said in a phone interview later in the week. "That's what you're trying to build, that attitude and mind-set to be better."

After six years of building up the program, Litzenberg, 46, decided it was ready to add competitions to the normal slate of football games each fall.

Unionville is in its fourth year of competing in the Cavalcade of Bands, the Mid-Atlantic association that this year took it to competitions in Hatboro, Hershey, Pa., and Ocean City, N.J.

Unionville placed well in its five competitions this fall, including besting 13 bands at Hatboro for the first win in school history.

"This is by far the most talented and dedicated group that I've worked with at the school," said Ryan Fegley, 28, assistant band director for the last three years. He and his wife, Aly, a marching and drill instructor, are one of three married couples among the eight-person coaching staff. Brent Thorpe coaches the drum line, and his wife, Carrie, is another marching and drill instructor.

All of the coaches except Scott Litzenberg work full time elsewhere before heading to Unionville for practice. Most are teachers or work in music departments at other schools; Ryan Fegley is band director for Unionville and Hillendale Elementary Schools; Aly Fegley is a physical-education teacher at Penn London Elementary School in the Avon Grove School District; and Amy Hipp, who helps coach the color guard, works in marketing in Exton.

"We usually refer to it as gas money, but nowadays it isn't even gas money," Litzenberg joked when talking about his coaches' pay. "It's just something we have enjoyed doing for a lot of years. . . . We have just really enjoyed working together as a team, and we all do a lot to make this work."

Unionville has one last competition. This evening, it will take on the rest of the Gator Bowl bands in the field at the Bolles School, a private high school in Jacksonville, and then tomorrow afternoon the band will be judged in the Gator Bowl Parade. It will find out at an awards ceremony that night how it fared.

The winning band will perform solo on the field during the Gator Bowl pregame festivities.

Band trips "are just great experiences," Scott Litzenberg said. "I mean, hey, let's go down there and see what happens. We have a shot to be really successful."

Band on TV?

The Gator Bowl will air on CBS3 on Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. CBS will show part of the field show at halftime but will also have an in-studio halftime show, so it is unclear whether the Unionville band will get to perform on the air.