At small schools across Texas, attendance from the entire school district is required to put the pep in a pep rally. Such was the case at Dell City School one Friday this month, hours before the Cougars were to play their first home game of the 2021 football season in the far West Texas town that numbers around five hundred residents.
Nearly all 72 enrolled students—from the kindergartners all the way up to the twelfth graders—filed into the gym, occupying about half of the three rows of bleachers they sat in. Five elementary and junior high students were on the basketball court, beating on percussion instruments, waiting for the seven members of the varsity football team to parade in a few minutes later and line up at midcourt.
The players wore blue game jerseys and blue jeans, athletic shoes, or cowboy boots. Just before coach Joey Czubinski addressed the crowd, he waved toward his team. “Here, for the first time in three years, is why we have football in Dell City,” Czubinski said into a portable microphone. The students responded with cheers and high-pitched screams. The players shuffled somewhat uncomfortably.
Welcome to game day at the smallest high school participating in University Interscholastic League football this season, where more than half of the enrollment will be dressed out to play. Dell City High (which is technically not its own school, but rather a division of Dell City School) has thirteen total students—eleven of them boys—and is playing six-man football for the first time since 2018. There’s one smaller UIL program, Valentine School, down near Fort Davis with just nine high schoolers, but Valentine hasn’t attempted to field a football team since 1966. (In case you’re curious, the largest UIL school is Allen High, whose listed enrollment is 6,959.)
Any UIL high school with an enrollment of fewer than 105 is assigned to Conference 1A, where they compete in the downsized, six-man version of football, although some schools choose to “play up” and continue with eleven-person rosters. Any school with 59.4 or fewer students is placed in Division II, the lower half of the classification.
This year’s Cougars squad began the season with the “luxury” of a substitute player because one of the two high-school girls attending Dell City wanted to play football. Iris Ayala is a sophomore—her brother, Luis, is on the team—who convinced her grandmother that she wouldn’t get hurt. She played on the boys basketball team last school year.
“We won’t have that many kids, but we have enough to have a team, and I know that the community’s pretty excited about it,” said school superintendent Carlos Contreras.
“It just brings the families together,” said Patricia Duran, whose family owns Dell City Mercantile, one of the two quasi-grocery, quasi-convenience stories in town. She also runs Spanish Angels Cafe, one of Dell City’s two restaurants. “For me, it’s unity.”
The only Cougar who had played in a varsity football game before this season is Stevie Morales, a senior receiver and safety. He’s joined by three sophomores and three freshmen. “It means a lot to be able to play,” said Morales, “so I can have those memories.”
For many six-man programs across the state that have barely enough to players to field a team, the realistic goal is simply to avoid injuries, stay on the field, and complete the season. “It’s a scary situation for Coach ’Ski,” said Bryan Wardroup, the coach at Fort Davis High, one of four other schools in Dell City’s UIL district. “I give him all the credit in the world for taking that on and moving forward, ’cause it’s not going to be an easy year.”
Many a small Texas burg features a prominent “Welcome to . . . ” sign on the way into town, sometimes sporting a clever civic motto. On Farm-to-Market Road 1437 running north into Dell City, a billboard touts “A Growing Community.” For those thinking that refers to the population, the accompanying images—now faded and peeling—indicate something different: alfalfa, grapes, cattle, chile peppers.
Dell City is a small grid of dusty streets located four miles south of the New Mexico line. It’s about ninety minutes east of El Paso, separated by the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s only a few miles into the Mountain Time Zone and twenty miles west of the Guadalupe Mountains. It’s a relative newcomer compared to most Texas towns, a place where Texans hoping to strike oil in the late 1940s instead stumbled upon an aquifer. (The growth billboard also cites “The Valley of Hidden Waters.”) Dell City soon took shape around agriculture; its name comes from “The Farmer in the Dell.”
The last time the school had enough players to field a full-sized roster was in 1989; according to the Texas State Historical Association, the city’s population was 569 in the early 1990s. The Cougars reached the six-man state final in 1993, losing to Valera Panther Creek. Dell City most recently won its district in 2005, when the team had eighteen players. UIL records count the high school’s enrollment for the 1996–97 academic year at 76. A decade later, it was 31. Today, less than half that.
Last year’s senior class numbered two. This year’s is three.
“There’s not much reason for the young people to stay here,” said Rafael Sanchez, Dell City High class of 1974. Conversely, Sanchez can’t find a reason to leave: “It’s real quiet, peaceful.”
Czubinski (the c is silent to everyone except his grandmother) arrived in 2015 after coaching six-man football at Lefors ISD up in the Panhandle. His first Cougars team qualified for the playoffs, but in 2019 he had to tell school administrators he didn’t have enough players to field a team. Czubinski had to settle for coaching junior high football, along with boys’ varsity basketball, track, and tennis. He also teaches all social studies classes for grades seven through twelve.
Last spring, Czubinski appeared to have nine football players for this season, only to see two boys who’d recently arrived in town move out only months later. The coach said he could manage with seven players, even though it meant a couple of injuries or a handful of players with academic troubles might stop the Cougars’ season dead in its tracks. And he said he has no plans to decrease hitting in practice to lessen the chance of injury.
“If you start doing that,” Czubinski said, “how are they going to react on game night when somebody else is trying to take their head off?”
To accommodate fewer players, six-man football in Texas adopts altered rules and dimensions from the standard version of the game. The field is eighty yards long instead of a hundred. On offense, a team must earn fifteen—not ten—yards to make a first down. Extra-point kicks are worth two points, while a run or pass after a touchdown is worth one. Field goals are four points, but rarely attempted. Oh, and there’s a mercy rule that ends the game if a team has a 45-point lead at the end of the first half or anytime in the second half.
Because of the TKO rule, the vocabulary of six-man football contains a verb not used elsewhere: “We got 45’ed.” According to Granger Huntress, who operated an invaluable six-man website for years, almost half of the six-man games played in Texas over the past 25 years have ended early.
Like many six-man rosters, the Cougars are small in number and in stature. The only player heavier than 160 pounds is Luis Ayala, at five-foot-six and 210. The smallest is freshman Luis Guillen, introduced by Czubinski during the pep rally as “Little Looie.” He goes five-foot-three, 110 pounds.
The Cougars played one preseason scrimmage, a three-way affair at Van Horn (the third team on Dell City’s schedule) that included Fort Davis (the first team on their schedule). Czubinski’s assessment of the dress rehearsal: “Didn’t go out there and lay an egg.” A week later came the season opener at Fort Davis, a larger school with an enrollment of 77 and nineteen players on the football team. That afternoon, shortly before leaving for the game, Czubinski learned that one of his players, freshman Eli Tate, had just gone home sick.
Dell City would drive two and a half hours to Fort Davis to play with no subs. Czubinski closely watched his players during warm-ups. The glances they shared between one another seemed to say, “It’s just us.”
The Cougars fell behind 34–0 before Luis Ayala scored late in the first half. When sophomore quarterback Reyes Espinoza had to leave the game for one play after he had the wind knocked out of him, Dell City briefly played five-on-six. Espinoza’s fourth-quarter touchdown run literally kept the Cougars in the game. They lost 48–12, but they weren’t 45’ed.
“I was proud of ’em,” Czubinski said.
After the game, Fort Davis coach Bryan Wardroup heaped praise on Czubinski’s Cougars. “Our players had their eyes opened to just how tough and how much fighters those kids from Dell City are,” Wardroup said. “To come out and just keep going play after play, hit after hit—they did their jobs and played their assignments. That was pretty impressive.”
Iris Ayala, at five-foot-six and 140 pounds, was relieved to have her first varsity game under her belt. “I knew I had the courage,” she said.
“She took some really nasty shots,” Czubinski said. “Just hop right up and go back to the huddle.”
Next on Dell City’s schedule was the home opener, scheduled for Thursday, September 2 against Fort Hancock. But days before kickoff, two Dell City players tested positive for COVID-19. Although UIL rules allow continuing a six-man game with only five players if injury forces one to leave the field, teams aren’t allowed to start games with fewer than six players. Czubinski and the Cougars were forced to cancel.
After a weeklong delay, the Cougars were back at full strength for what became their home opener against Van Horn. An enthusiastic crowd showed up to the game, with a few dozen fans seated in the bleachers, another group set up in lawn chairs on the north end of the field, and others who parked their pickups at the fence and watched from there. The Dell City junior high team, also with seven players, played first and gave the varsity a tough act to follow. The younger Cougars scored with less than fifteen seconds left in the game to stun Van Horn 40–34. Three girls played the entire game, and one of them, Nikki Martos, Sanchez’s granddaughter, scored the winning touchdown.
Against Van Horn, the Cougars actually had a slight manpower advantage. Van Horn dressed only six players, with the rest of the fourteen-strong roster missing the game due to injuries and other reasons.
With daylight fading, the Guadalupe Mountains were still faintly visible to the east when Van Horn kicked off for the varsity game. On the Cougars’ first play from scrimmage, Espinoza ran a sweep around the left end. When he was tackled, he landed on the ball and had the wind knocked out of him (again), leaving him prone on the grass. For a team with one substitute, the scene looked foreboding for both the Cougars and their fans. But Espinoza was soon helped to his feet and back in the game.
Dell City lost a fumble on the next play, and Van Horn wasted no time establishing dominance with a 29-yard touchdown run on the team’s first play from scrimmage. The play was called back on a holding penalty, only for Van Horn running back Cy Garcia to run for a touchdown that counted on the next snap.
Van Horn scored on its first three offensive plays—not drives, plays—to build a 23–0 lead. It took the Cougars till the last play of the first quarter to earn a single first down. That occurred when Iris Ayala, who plays center on offense, ran out on a pass pattern and grabbed a twenty-yarder over the middle, clutching the ball in her midsection as she fell to the turf. Alas, Ayala’s catch gave the Cougars what would be their only first down of the game. Van Horn added three more touchdowns and led 46–0 with 2:28 left in the half.
Talk about your two-minute pressure offense—the Cougars needed to score before halftime to avoid losing by mercy rule. Facing fourth-and-four at Dell City’s 38-yard line, Espinoza connected on a short pass with freshman receiver Joe Acosta, but Acosta was brought down short of a first down. Van Horn took a knee and ran out the clock. Up in the tiny booth atop the home-side bleachers, superintendent Contreras cued up Willie Nelson on the PA system: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over . . . ”
Van Horn outgained Dell City 249 yards to 68 (unofficial stats compiled by yours truly). Espinoza, hounded all night by the opponents’ rush, completed just six of 21 passes. “Wish we’d put on a better show,” Czubinski said.
Shortly after the drained players clattered back to the field house and changed, Espinoza spoke quietly about the game. “We can’t be scared of any team anymore,” he said with a slight frown. “It’s ourselves that are hurting us. We’ve got to change that pretty soon.”
Van Horn coach Brock Tyrrell lauded Czubinski and his players, particularly Iris Ayala. “She’s not afraid, and I think that really can be the glue for a team like that,” Tyrrell said. “When you’ve got anybody that’s willing to come into the team and come together to work for success, you’re going to get success eventually.”
The Cougars’ next game is Saturday, a non-district contest at home against a team of homeschoolers. Winning any of Dell City’s four games against district opponents figures to be a long shot. The district favorite is Balmorhea, which is ranked fifth statewide in Division II and beat Van Horn 80–41. Dell City’s “home game” against Sanderson will be play ninety miles away, at Van Horn’s home field, to spare the visitors part of what would otherwise be a four-hour drive.
Moving forward, Czubinski’s message to his players is simple: “This is what we’ve got, and the other team is going to hope and pray that you’re not in good shape. They’re going to hope and pray that you don’t make it through four quarters.
“So we need to surprise those people. We are the smallest; it’s a fact. It isn’t something you’re hiding or something you’re looking the other way on. We are the smallest school in the state of Texas—period!
“We can’t use that as a crutch. We’ve got to use that as motivation.”