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 Stephenville ever since. When to go: Catch regular-season home games on Friday nights from September through November; playoffs run through December. Call 254-968-4141 for more information.
Baseball and Rodeo, Alpine
ALTHOUGH THE RANGERS AND ASTROS play a long way from tiny Alpine, the crack of the baseball bat is just as stirring a sound in far West Texas as it is in the big cities. Beginning in February at Sul Ross State University’s Kokernot Field—an old-time shrine to baseball considered by many to be the Yankee Stadium of Texas—875 fans can sit in original wood-slat seats and see games three or four nights a week. The Sul Ross Lobos play here, as do the Alpine High School Bucks, and the significance of the experience isn’t lost on members of either team. “It’s a big thing for kids all over West Texas to come and play here,” says Sul Ross baseball coach Donnie Randell. Elsewhere in town, there’s just as much enthusiasm for the rodeo. Each year Sul Ross’s renowned range-animal science program hosts the Sul Ross State University Intercollegiate Rodeo at the city’s San Antonio Livestock Exhibition and Equine Science Center. When to go: College, high school, little league, and old-timer teams play at Kokernot Field from February through November. For details call 915-837-8226. The rodeo is held the first weekend in October. Call 915-837-8200 for information.
Six-Man Football, Gordon
SIX-MAN FOOTBALL IS A CLASSIC SMALL-town pastime, a scaled-down version of the traditional game that’s meant to be played in sparsely populated areas. But it still inspires big passions in this North Texas town. One of the state’s premier six-man teams, the Gordon High School Longhorns have made it to at least the state quarterfinals each of the past five years, winning the championship in 1996, and have functioned as the sport’s unofficial ambassadors to the rest of the world. They received national attention in 1994 when the Associated Press covered their game against a team from Colorado, and in 1996 they were featured on ESPN and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. Although the population of the town of Gordon is only 465, the school’s stadium has 2,500 seats—and yet even that wasn’t enough to accommodate the 3,000-plus fans on hand at last year’s “Super Bowl of Six-Man” against neighboring Strawn. “They’ve been trying to beat us for the last nine years,” says Nelson Campbell, Gordon High’s principal and head coach. “They were ranked higher than we were, and they just brought everybody in the dang county out to watch the game. They did wind up beating us by six points—but they had to fight to do it.” When to go: Football season runs September through November, with playoffs in December. For a complete schedule call 254-693-5342.
“IF YOU ASK ME WHERE BASEBALL’S BIG in Texas,” says Charles Breithaupt, the athletic director of the University Interscholastic League, “one of the first places I think of is Robstown.” Led by Coach Steve Castro, the Robstown High Cotton Pickers have been to the state playoffs each of the past twelve years, and they’ve won two state championships; no wonder the stadium is almost always packed. Here in the cotton country of South Texas, the population is more than 90 percent Hispanic, so the atmosphere of the games is distinct. Tejano music pours out of the loudspeakers between innings, and the particular brand of baseball played—light hitting, great defense—is squarely in the Latin American tradition. Among the graduates who’ve gone on to bigger things is second baseman Jesse Garcia (class of ’92), who has been invited to spring training by the Baltimore Orioles this year. When to go: The regular season began on February 22 and ends April 30, but put a star by April 13; that’s when Robstown plays at home against archrival Corpus Christi Calallen. For a complete schedule call 512-387-5999.
TROY HAMM, THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL principal and head basketball coach in this North Texas town, says that he’s heard stories of Krumians visiting places as far away as San Francisco, mentioning where they’re from, and getting asked, “Isn’t that that basketball town?” Yes, it is—and it deserves its national reputation for excellence in the sport. Krum High (which doesn’t even field a football team) won the state basketball championship last year and seems a good bet to repeat this year. Although the entire student body is just 302 people, they regularly compete against much larger 4A and 5A schools, and they rarely lose; in fact, they’ve won 134 district games in a row, putting them in range to break the record set by East Texas’ Buna High School from 1955 to 1964. Not surprisingly, hoops are erected in almost every driveway in Krum, and kids start dribbling in kindergarten. “We have a tradition,” says Vaughn Andrus, whose fifth son now plays for Krum, “and if you live here, you can’t help but get caught up in it.” When to go: Krum High’s regular season runs from November through the middle of February; the playoffs run through March. For the team’s schedule call 940-482-6000.
WHEN YOU EXPERIENCE THE BASKETBALL fervor in this Central Texas town, you might daydream that you’ve somehow been transported to a small town in Indiana or Kentucky. Pinch yourself: You’re in Moulton, a community with a proud hoops history and a knack for producing gym rats of both genders. The Moulton High School girls’ team has gone to the playoffs seventeen straight times; the boys have been there seven times, winning state championships in 1991 and 1998. How big is basketball here? The school’s state-of-the-art arena holds 950 people, just 17 fewer than the entire population of Moulton. As in many small Texas towns, the team is the community and the community—here, mostly of Czech and German decent—is the team. The roster of this year’s boys’ varsity team tells the tale: Darilek, Patek, Simper, Henke, Chaloupka, Petrek. Many of these same surnames could probably have been found on the rosters of Moulton High teams twenty or more years ago, just beneath the name of head coach Sammie Koudelka, who has led the Bobkatz since 1972. When to go: The regular season runs from November through February, with playoffs in March. For a schedule of games call 512-596-4691.
THERE’S A SIGN IN BRENHAM that heralds the East Texas town as the state’s baseball capital. Call it truth in advertising. In the eighties—led by pitcher Jon Peters, whose 53 consecutive victories set a high school record—the Brenham High School Cubs won three state championships. The Cubs haven’t won any state titles since then, but baseball is still a way of life in Brenham, which has an astonishing number of diamonds around town (and is getting three more as part of a new recreational facility). “Little League is real big here,” says Arthur Hahn, the managing editor of the Brenham’s Banner-Press. “You’ve got kids playing all hours of the night during the summer.” This year Brenham will be the site of the first-ever Amateur Athletic Union baseball high school championships, with 32 of the best high school teams in the country competing in a nine-day tournament beginning July 16. Frank Dorner, the baseball chair of the AAU’s Texas Gulf association, said Brenham was the natural place to kick off what will be an annual event. “These people get out and support their teams,” he says. “It’s amazing.” When to go: Baseball is played in Brenham from February through the end of the summer. Call 409-277-6570 for information on the Cubs or 281-469-6721 if you’re interested in seeing the AAU tournament.