CHAMPAIGN — On the last day of school, there's a final run-through of a Christmas carol Centennial High School's choir will perform at the State Farm Center.
They're practicing "The First Nowell," a new arrangement of the 18th-century "First Noel," which they'll perform Sunday while country singer Kenny Rogers is off-stage.
But it isn't the weekend gig at a Big Ten arena that has the students fidgeting. Instead, the school's top choir is literally squirming as they count down to winter break.
"No gum!" choir teacher Marian Wyatt barks at the gigglers.
Later, she tosses a shoe at a loud student, missing intentionally but not by too much.
"She keeps it fun," senior Reis DeSantis, a bass, says, "as we do it over and over and over."
"I think it's going to be great to be on the stage," says Allison Wisniewski, a junior and an alto.
Unfamiliar with his work
There's a lot to be excited about for the choir, which earlier this month sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at State Farm Center before the school's boys' basketball team played Chicago Bogan. The plan is to leave for the UI's basketball arena at 4 p.m. Sunday, rehearse at 5 and then complement Rogers, backing him up on Christmas traditionals.
Still, for a gaggle of 17- and 18-year-olds, there's the question of:
Before the choir was invited to join him on stage, many had never heard of him.
"I didn't know anything about him until I looked him up," DeSantis says.
But others were in the know.
"My grandparents are fans," senior soprano Daniele Brookshire says.
"I've only heard one of his songs," junior Thomas Hazelwood, a bass, says. "The one about poker." (That would be "The Gambler," a No. 1 hit in 1978. That was a long time ago.)
'It's a small world'
Hazelwood sings "doo" for much of the song, and others contribute what sounds like "ding ding" before they join together in the swell of "Noel, Noel, born is the king of Israel!"
Wyatt is from the small town of Gillespie — "when I came here, I thought Fourth Street was a big highway" — and will be in familiar company Sunday. Lynn Hammann, also from Gillespie, is Rogers' drummer in the Christmas show.
Their hometown connection is the main reason that Centennial got the call to join Rogers.
"It's a small world," Wyatt says.
There's more in store for the Chargers than just exposure. The country legend is paying them $500.
Wyatt said about $300 of that will be spent on catered food.
Between rehearsals and showtime, the Chargers will chow down on pulled pork and mac and cheese from Hickory River Smokehouse.
"I want them to feel like they're stars," Wyatt said. "This is a wonderful memory to make."