RARELY ON A WALK DOWN MAIN STREET in small-town Texas will you fail to see a billboard, marquee, or water tower proudly proclaiming, “Home of the Fighting (insert mascot here).” Here more than anywhere, school sports can do no wrong and do a lot right: They create a sense of identity and bind the community—old and young, rich and poor—together. Some teams are consistently if improbably champions. Some have a great tradition of hard-fought competition. Some are just fun to watch. The following sports give their towns—and, ultimately, all of us—something to brag about.
THINGS HAVE BEEN DECIDELY LOW-KEY since the Sealy High School Tigers lost in the first round of the state high school football playoffs last November. For other towns, just making the playoffs would be an accomplishment worth celebrating, but not Sealy, which had won four state 3A titles in a row. “The entire community was depressed,” says head coach T. J. Mills. “They didn’t know what to do with themselves on Friday nights and at lunchtime and at coffee.” Football is practically everything to this Gulf Coast town, whose most famous native son is former NFL star (and soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee) Eric Dickerson. Even practices draw large crowds. “I’ve coached in a place where they didn’t care about football,” Mills says, “and I’d much rather have the fans up there in the stands critiquing us. I want to coach in a town where football is important.” It’s so important that everyone’s attention is already focused on next season. “We have one goal: to win the state championship. Anything less than that will be a disappointment.” And if they don’t win? Well, depression aside, you had better believe the bleachers will continue to be full. “On a Friday night, if you’re not at the game, you can have your pick of what to do because everything else is as vacant as can be,” says Jimmy Galvan, the managing editor of the Sealy News. “That’s when my wife likes to go to Wal-Mart.” When to go: Practices and scrimmages begin in August; the season runs September through November, with playoffs ending in December. For game times call 409-885-3515.
Track and Field, Giddings
“GIDDINGS HAS ALWAYS BEEN A TRACK TOWN,” says Tony Francis, Sr., the coach of Giddings’ L.C. (Lee County) Express Track Club, “and we do have a lot of talent around here.” He’s not kidding. This Central Texas community boasts several of the fastest runners in the country, student-athletes who will be getting full scholarships to some of the nation’s premier college track programs and—who knows?—might even end up in the Olympics. Much of the credit goes to Francis, who starts training some of his future stars as early as age eight, but the reality is that track is just about the only game in town. “We don’t have a lot to offer in Giddings besides running,” he admits. “We don’t have a movie theater, and our swimming pool is smaller than a basketball court.” Over time, club alumni have held more than twenty national track records, and the current crop of students could well increase that number. The standouts include Jermaine Cooper, who has run the third-fastest high school time ever in the 55-meter hurdles; Lameisa Thomas, a two-time state champion in the 400-meter dash; and Jason Hodge, a sprinter who’s been recruited by Olympic sprinter Leroy Burrell, who coaches at the University of Houston. “I tell the kids, ‘If you give me exactly what I give you, you will succeed,’” Francis says. “And they do.” When to go: Club season begins in May. The L.C. Express practices in Giddings Monday through Friday but competes mostly on the road. For times and locations call 409-542-1060.
WHAT’S THE FIRST THING YOU THINK OF when you think of this Panhandle town? Dust? Tumbleweeds? Try girls’ basketball. “Over the past thirty or forty years,” says Joe Lombard, the head coach of the Canyon High School Lady Eagles, “good, solid programs have been built, and when you start winning, it just feeds on itself. The communities have really adopted some of the teams. I don’t know if we’re quite on the level of football, but we’re not far behind.” Under Lombard, the Eagles have been a consistent 4A power; they’ve won two state championships in the past seven years (most recently in 1996), and at press time they were 31-0 this season. That’s a good mark to have going into the playoffs, since the competition is so tough; the last two state champions were district rivals Levelland and Canyon Randall. “When we get into district play,” Lombard says, “our gym is full. For a big district game at six-thirty, the gym might be full by five-thirty. We’ve had playoff games where we’ve had three thousand people.” When to go: The regular season runs November through February (the playoffs run through March, but the games are not usually played in Canyon). For details call 806-656-6181.
IF YOU MANAGE TO GET IN TO SEE A Stephenville High School football game, don’t forget to bring your earplugs. The seven thousand fans who cram into Tarleton State University’s stadium (where the YellowJackets play) have a noisemaking tradition that’s second to none: They fill old paint buckets and propane tanks with ball bearings and rattle them throughout the game. Believe me, standing within earshot of just one of these contraptions is painful; thousands can be deafening. But the faithful love it in this town an hour southwest of Fort Worth, and, anyway, the cacophony can be forgiven as an ongoing attempt to exorcise the past. From 1953 to 1988, the YellowJackets were positively listless, with no banners of any kind to hang on the wall. During the past decade, however, there’s been something to cheer about every year, including three 4A state titles in the past six years (all over rival La Marque). The difference? Head coach Art Briles, who signed on in 1988 and has been a hero in