The Abilene high school football team practices on their home field in preparation for the Saturday night state championship. This is the first time Abilene has been in the championship game since 1956 — and it's taking on two-time defending state champion Katy.
The Abilene high school football team practices on their home field in preparation for the Saturday night state championship. This is the first time Abilene has been in the championship game since 1956 — and it's taking on two-time defending state champion Katy. Tom Goldman/NPR
NPR reporters Tom Goldman and Mike Pesca have been crisscrossing the country, collecting the sounds and sights of this year's high school football season. The series Friday Night Lives culminates with the Texas 5A Division II state championship game Saturday between the Katy High School Tigers and the Abilene High School Eagles. Mike Pesca spent time in Katy, 30 miles outside of Houston; Goldman went to Abilene in West Texas. The two will meet up in San Antonio for this weekend's title match-up to report on the big game.
The two best high school football teams in Texas will go head to head in the state championship Saturday night at the Alamodome in San Antonio — and it's expected to be a titanic showdown.
This is the first time Abilene has been in the state championship game since 1956 — and it's taking on Katy, the two-time defending champion. USA Today's national poll of the best high school football teams rated Katy No. 3 and Abilene No. 4.
Attendance is expected to reach the tens of thousands — possibly as high as 40,000. But that's high school football in Texas.
In the Lone Star state, 160,000 kids play high school football, and that's more than in any other state, according to the most recent survey. The lore of Texas football has been captured as well as anywhere in the 1990 book Friday Night Lights, which was adapted into a movie and TV series. And so, like the end of a fireworks display where all the pyrotechnics go off, NPR agreed to go to the epicenter of high school football.
Katy: The Latest Lone Star Football Dynasty
Katy is a two-time defending champion in the state's highest classification of high school teams: 5A Division II.
The Tigers are the most recent football dynasty in Texas, having also won state championships in 2003, 2000 and 1997. But Katy High School is not a football factory, sending player after player to top college programs and the pros.
Though massive lineman Shep Klinke (6' 9", 290 pounds) is committed to Texas A&M University next year, for the most part, the Tigers rely on solid execution and teamwork. In fact, they've switched quarterbacks throughout the playoffs, and the starter in the championship game, Brooks Haack, had been coming off the bench as recently as two weeks ago.
Opponents are averaging less than 9 points a game against Katy over their last 10 contests, making the championship game a classic contest between a high-powered, complex offense and a straightforward but stingy defense.
That's just the way Katy head coach Gary Joseph likes it.
"[There's] not a lot of flash and dash to Coach Joseph," says Katy's athletic director, Rusty Dowling. With both his offensive and defensive strategies, Joseph is "a very conservative, down-to-earth guy," Dowling says.
Joseph's offensive strategy, Dowling says, can be summed up as "Try to stop it." And his defensive strategy: "This is how we're going to line up. See if you can move the ball."
The Other Side Of The Line
The undefeated Abilene Eagles love to move the ball — and they've been tremendously successful this season.
They have a star running back in junior Herschel Sims, who relies primarily on speed. He has rushed for 2,245 yards this season and has 34 touchdowns. He has also caught five touchdown passes.
His running mate, a fellow junior named Tony Curtis, is more of a bruiser. Sim's cousin, Ronnell Sims, is the Eagles' starting quarterback. He can throw a nice ball, but Ronnell also adds to the Eagles' formidable running attack: This season, he gained almost 1,000 yards and scored 12 rushing touchdowns.
On defense, Abilene sounds similar to Katy, although with less size. The Eagles don't have a lot of players who appear to be bound for Division I college ball — but they are tremendously cohesive and use their timing and speed to great effect. Over this undefeated season, the Abilene defense has held opponents to an average of 12 points per game.
So with two great defenses and two potent running attacks, who will gain the advantage? Perhaps the kicking game — kickoffs, punts and returns — will tip the balance. Kickoff and punt returns are the way teams can strike quickly to turn the momentum of a close game.
Of Team And Community
In Abilene, there's a tremendous amount of excitement about this year's team, but the Eagles are also resonating for nostalgic reasons.
This is the first time Abilene has been in the state championship game since 1956. In 1999, The Dallas Morning News named the Eagles team that played between 1954 and 1957 the Texas high school "Team of the Century." The Eagles' current success has made stars of those '50s-era players and coaches again. Those still alive and living in Abilene have been doing interviews and giving talks about the connections between then and now.
Abilene's success has also caused a surge in pride in West Texas football. From small dusty towns to bigger cities like Abilene, West Texas came to define a kind of no-nonsense, hard-working brand of football that reflected the people who came from the sparsely populated region.
In recent years, dominance in the highest classification of Texas high school football has shifted to the metro areas, like Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Antonio and Houston. It's a matter of numbers: There are more kids in those areas, more money and therefore, richer districts with better facilities and equipment.
Considering that shift over the last decade or so, it's not surprising that the Abilene Eagles have gained a lot of fans throughout West Texas — fans who are counting on the team to "show those big boys in the city."
That connection between team and community was evident this week at Abilene's last full practice before the big game.
Coach Steve Warren gathered his team on the field and read a three-page letter from an anonymous fan that talked about how the people of Abilene were grateful for the team's exciting run to the championship game.
When he finished reading, Warren had a decidedly un-Texan reaction: He choked up.
Fighting through tears, Warren said to his players: "You've done something special. It's worth talking about from now on, and it's worth feeling good about, because nobody can ever, ever take away what you've created in this community, and what you've created with your teammates. You really ought to be proud of that, because that doesn't happen every single day. ... We're gonna go down there and win this football game because it's our time. And it's our place, and we're going after it. One game. That's it. One game."