Hilltoppers savor every second in national spotlight

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February 2, 2024

This was the gig of a lifetime for the ز,Ȳַ ######### Hilltoppers, singing a cappella to a raucous crowd of 40,000 atop Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, one of the opening acts for a hairy headliner that has the mystical power to declare an early end to winter.

The Hilltoppers lets decree them the Philtoppers on this day, Feb. 2, 2024 may not have upstaged the worlds most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.

But what a day they had.

Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day is something to behold. Adults don groundhog onesies and LED-lit hats that spell out SHADOW, complete with a red slash through the word. The skies fill with fireworks and with T-shirts launched from shoulder cannons. Intermittent pillars of flame shoot up on the main stage, throwing heat 60 feet into the crowd. And security on this wooded hill in north central Pennsylvania is tighter than hairpin turns in a rodents burrow.

Wheres Waldo, you ask? In the crowd at Punxsutawney. So was Elvis, sporting a shimmery green cape emblazoned with Aint Nothing But A Groundhog.

Every Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney is an epic whistle-pig shindig. Its Woodstock for a woodchuck.

Into its midst walked the Hilltoppers, the longtime all-male singing group on campus, founded in 1978, and which welcomed its first female member this year.

They wore their trademark khakis, ties, and navy blue blazers. They stood out.

Someone called us the Hogwarts kids, which I think is hilarious, said Emmet Anderson 25.

It was a long and winding road from The Hill to Gobblers Knob. The journey began before the current Hilltoppers were born, back in the 1990s when a top-hatted, tuxedoed gentleman now known as the Thunder Conductor who, since 2007, has belonged to Punxsutawney Phils dapper entourage, the Inner Circle came across a CD of the Granville group.

He wasnt known as the Thunder Conductor then. He was just Dave Gigliotti, fresh out of the University of Pittsburgh and starting his career as a chiropractor.

A buddy of Gigliottis, it turns out, was dating a woman who had gone to ز,Ȳַ #########. She was a fan of the Hilltoppers, raved about their performances, and played for them a CD of their recordings, circa 1993.

The relationship between his friend and the ز,Ȳַ ######### grad didnt last, Gigliotti said. But his appreciation of the Hilltoppers did.

Ive loved them ever since, he said. I have them on my phone. They play in my car periodically.

As Thunder Conductor, Gigliotti is responsible for the entertainment that precedes Phils famous forecast.

The thunder is the actual crowd noise that morning, he said.

He reached out to the Hilltoppers about 10 years ago, and plans were struck to sing at the festivities. But an ice storm derailed that visit. Last fall Gigliotti tried again, calling his prior Hilltoppers contact, Nick Ingram 15. Ingram passed the new invitation on to Hilltopper Gabe Donnelly 25.

They accepted. They piled into three cars, drove to Pittsburgh Thursday night, and hit the road to Punxsutawney at 1 a.m., arriving in town just before 3 a.m. By then, the masses were already queuing for the army of shuttle buses.

I got maybe 20 minutes of sleep, said Max McQuistion 25. His initial, sleep-deprived take on the proceedings?

Very interesting, he said, looking around. But people go crazy about a lot worse stuff than a groundhog.

The Hilltoppers were treated like royalty. They were given VIP parking and backstage passes. They performed a 10-minute set at 5:30 a.m., their version of Totos Africa (a personal request from the Thunder Conductor) about an hour later, and the National Anthem after that.

Savor every second of this, Anderson told the circle of friends before their first set. Because its a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

There were, truth be told, a few glitches. The outdoor venue was a challenge the singers said later they couldnt hear each other well and sometimes not at all and the rapid-fire schedule didnt allow for soundchecks. Win Abeles 25, still recovering from a club soccer injury, had to climb the stairs to the stage on crutches.

And at one point during their set, the festivals sound system inexplicably blared a Spanish newscast.

They took that in stride, too.

I was curious why that was happening, McQuistion said later. But why not? Added a little spice to it.

Another unexpected development unfolded as they toured the grounds during a break. A stranger in a groundhog hat approached, addressing them as though he knew them personally.

And he did. Colin Thomas 26 realized it was his dad; his parents had flown in from California to surprise him.

The Hilltoppers couldnt get over the size of the crowd.

It was surreal, being up there on stage, Donnelly said. It was just people all the way back.

A sea of people, said Owen Baker 25, who as an international student from the United Kingdom admitted he found some of these American traditions a bit perplexing. Take, for instance, the four shirtless men that he spied up front, P-H-I-L painted on their bare chests.

That was something else, Baker said.

This is so fun, so, so fun, said Antonia Baylor 26, a pioneer in Hilltoppers history as the groups first female member.

Their obligations fulfilled, the Hilltoppers stood arm in arm as fireworks thundered above the treeline.

They joined the crowd up front and went wild when Phil was held aloft and predicted an early spring, to uproarious applause.

The skies had brightened by then. Their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity taken, the ز,Ȳַ ######### students basked in the national spotlight, soaking it all up. They were not standing in anyones shadow.