When Pete Kikta composed the music for Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College’s first battle song, he put his creative mind into the mood of the 1920s.
A good college fight song “must sound like it was written a hundred years ago,” Kikta said on Wednesday.
In fact, most of them were written a century ago.
Take the University of Wisconsin, for example. Founded in 1848, it contains one of college sports most famous battle songs, “On Wisconsin,” written in 1909. Saint Mary-of-the-Woods is eight years older than the University of Wisconsin, but SMWC is only just debuting its battle song.
The Woods has a long history of novelty and breakthroughs in college education, but campus foods like a battle song and team mascot went unfulfilled for nearly 180 years.
“It was like ‘Really? We don’t have a battle song? Didn’t anyone think of that? ‘”Said Dottie King, the college president, laughing on Friday.
Such oversights are understandable.
Eventually, The Woods was founded in 1840 as a women’s college for the humanities, but only competed sporadically in athletics between colleges until it was launched in the late 20th century.
The list of college sports teams grew in the 21st century and expanded significantly after the school began accepting male students in 2015. Today SMWC has eight women’s teams and seven men’s teams.
Now it also has an honest official battle song – “Go, Woods, Go!” Holy Mother Theodore Guerin and five Provincial Sisters who founded the college 181 years ago probably needed a rousing performance of the song when they first saw the remote location of their future school in the woods of the western Vigo district. Unfortunately the debut of the song had to wait a little longer. It was played for the first time on Saturday at the season opening games of the SMWC women’s and men’s basketball teams in the Knoerle Sports and Leisure Center.
A recording of the song was used with a Woods choir singing the words to band music played and recorded by Kikta’s friend Frank Sullivan – an Indiana State University graduate and former band director of Owen Valley High School, now in Florida lives. Ideally, an SMWC pep band would play it live, but pandemic precautions put such performances on hold, King said. At some point, however, a Woods Pep band will actually play and a dance team will switch to it.
“What other schools take for granted, we build,” said King.
Kikta wrote the peppy, rhythmic melody and chords for the battle song and collaborated on the lyrics with Karen Dyer, vice president of the College for Development and Strategic Initiatives. King hired Dyer to lead a team to give Kikta some SMWC-specific ideas for lyrics, but after meeting Kikta she thought, “Well, I can do that.” So she teamed up with Kikta to put the words together.
His lyrics refer to Woods legends such as Sister Mary Joe Pomeroy (after whom the sports teams are nicknamed), The Avenue, the Trees, Mother Guerin and the distinctive onyx rings of alum.
“I really couldn’t be happier,” said King of the uniqueness of the battle song. “You couldn’t sing it for any other school, or you could just type in the name of another school.”
It was Dyer’s first attempt at songwriting. She appreciates the rarity of the opportunity.
“It’s very unusual for a college to develop a battle song,” Dyer said on Wednesday. “Most did it a long time ago.”
Given this reality, The Woods found a rare source in Kikta, who actually wrote the music for a college battle song that was once used by Loyola University in Chicago, his hometown. Kikta mentioned this experience to King a few years ago when he was the assistant band director at Northview High School. King and her husband Wayne had all six of their children participate in Northview’s music programs.
King hasn’t forgotten about Kikta’s Loyola niche.
King’s desire to get a fight song for SMWC was sparked when Kikta’s daughter Kamyrn signed up for SWMC a few years ago. A year earlier, the college had added a mascot, the onyx, a costumed black horse that has since roamed the sidelines and stands at home events. The next step was a battle song. So in 2019 King reached out to Kikta to write one for The Woods. He agreed, and the college hired him to incorporate this musical element into the campus atmosphere.
Kikta and Dyer finished the song more than a year ago, with plans to debut it on Woods homecoming weekend in 2020. The pandemic limited this celebration so the school decided to postpone the making of the battle song until last weekend.
Creating the new fight song was fun for Kikta. The 58-year-old is now the director of risk programs for Cumberland Academy, an alternative school adjacent to Northview. However, music fills its background. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois, a school recognized as the pioneer of marching band music. He has arranged music for bands, especially while working with former Northview band director Bob Medworth. He only composed two battle songs, but has long admired the genre.
“I’m a little connoisseur of college battle songs,” said Kikta.
He was studying for a masters degree from the University of Arizona when that school hosted a men’s basketball tournament that Loyola also attended. The Arizona pep band required school battle songs for each of the four participating teams. Kikta said a Loyola sports official told the Arizona band director that the Chicago school had lyrics for a battle song, but there was a lack of music. Kikta, a research assistant from Arizona, recorded the lyrics, set them to music, made a recording, handed them in on a visit to his hometown on the Loyola campus, and forgot.
A decade later, Kikta learned that Loyola had used his battle song for several years before the original music for “Loyola Anthem” was found and adopted for regular use.
His second fight song would last for decades at The Woods. Kikta and Dyer wanted every line of “Go, Woods, Go!” T-shirt worthy like “We’re Woodsies for life and Pomeroys for good!”
When asked if they had achieved that goal, Kikta said, “That won’t sound very humble, but yes.”
College battle songs have been around since 1885 when TJ Hurley wrote “For Boston” from Boston College, according to Boston College Magazine. The best fight songs trigger physical reactions in audiences, said Eric Smedley, director of Indiana University Sports Bands.
“It has to be something people can clap their hands or tap their feet,” Smedley said on Wednesday.
Kikta and Dyer beg the fans to do just that in Go, Woods, Go! with her second verse – “Get up, dear Woodsies and make some noise!”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]