High Schools Battle For More Than Football Title Much about the Texas 5A Division II state championship on Saturday night was big — the stakes, the schools, the stadium and the expectations. Abilene High School, which hadn't been in the state championship game since 1956, took on Katy High School, the two-time defending champion.
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High Schools Battle For More Than Football Title

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High Schools Battle For More Than Football Title

High Schools Battle For More Than Football Title

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We sent NPR's Mike Pesca to Katy and NPR's Tom Goldman to Abilene, and they met up in San Antonio for the championship game and they put this story together.


MIKE PESCA: You hear the train a rumbling? It's the soundtrack to kickoff for the Katy Tigers, as provided by the over 200 members of the unit that goes by...

BILL COOK: The roaring band from Tiger land.

PESCA: Unidentified People: Eagles. Eagles. Eagles.


TOM GOLDMAN: The Abilene Eagles ranked number four in that poll, undefeated, undersized, but fast and furious on defense and, oh boy, on offense - a speedy star running back Herschel Sims and his cousin - a speedy star quarterback Ronnell Sims, who broke a broke a 47-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game.


GOLDMAN: Another run by Ronnell made it 14-nothing just in the first quarter.

PESCA: Have you talked to them specifically, look, this is such a high-power offense, you might get behind by a couple scores early?

GARY JOSEPH: Well, you know, that's my job is to make sure they can deal with it. We have the fight in us to make sure that if something like that happened that we don't, you know, panic. That we, you know, have enough composure about ourselves to step up our level of play.

PESCA: Composure, an even keel, commitment - these are buzzwords for every football team. But with Katy, they're real. The district's athletic director, Rusty Dowling, says Katy's attitude is a reflection of the town.

RUSTY DOWLING: The Katy kids are a tremendously focused bunch of individuals, you know. And I would even say this: Katy High School reminds me of a throwback school. Old Katy has pretty much stayed intact.

PESCA: What Dowling means can't be seen on a map or discerned from the sign on the highway outside of Houston that says: Next nine exits, Katy. But Katy proper, old Katy, as Dowling says, is different. It's a friendly town nucleus inside the sprawling exurb.

PESCA: State Champs, '59, '97, '00, '03, '07 and '08. But if the current Katy team, down two scores at the Alamodome on Saturday, wanted to put '09 up there, they had to regain that famous composure, even in the face of bad penalty calls.

ZACK SWANSON: The ball was 10 yards overthrown. Ten yards, ref. It's overthrown.

PESCA: Senior Zack Swanson was outraged, but his emotions never teetered over into desperation.

GOLDMAN: Unidentified Man #1: Go.


PESCA: Midway through the third quarter, Katy kicked a field goal to pull within four points, 14 to 10. Coach Joseph's words about not panicking were coming true. The momentum had swung.

GOLDMAN: But Abilene started running well again and with about 10 minutes left in the game, the Eagles had a first down just nine yards from the Katy end zone. The score would give the Eagles a significant lead down the stretch. If Katy's defense held, it could turn around the game. At that moment, it was hard not to think of a half-century of history that bubbled up in Abilene the week before the game.

WALLY BULLINGTON: Unidentified People: Eagles.

BULLINGTON: Unidentified People: Eagles.

BULLINGTON: Okay. We have a number of guys here representing the 1956 state champion Abilene High School Eagles. We have...


GOLDMAN: Current coach Steve Warren has been getting Abilene closer over the past 10 years. Part of the reason: teaching, winning everywhere.

STEVE WARREN: If I had a football player that won a band contest, we made a big deal out of it. If I had a football player who had an animal in AG that won at a stock show, we made a big deal out of it. We wanted to make them understand that success breeds success no matter what it is.

GOLDMAN: Winning high school football championships traditionally was a fact of life in Abilene's region of the state, West Texas. Chock full of small to mid- range towns where Texas football madness always was a little madder. But West Texas high school teams haven't won the state's highest classification in recent years. So, as Abilene prepared for Katy, the list of who the players were playing for grew - for the memory of 1956, for West Texas, for all of Abilene.

WARREN: We are your loyal fans. We are your moms. We're your dads. We're your nanas. We're your granddads. I love some of these. We are your aunties, your uncles.

GOLDMAN: At the team's last practice before the title game, Coach Warren read a letter written anonymously, kind of an ode to the players from the loving locals in Abilene.

PESCA: Yeah, Tom, but did you see what those loving nanas were saying on the Internet message boards - because Katy saw it. One phrase that wound up on Katy's bulletin boards called the Tiger offense big, fat and slow. We will destroy those useless slobs.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, well, okay. You know, football is an emotional game. Listen to what Abilene Coach Warren said, choking back tears even, after he read the town's letter to his team.

WARREN: To you seniors, I can't say enough about you. What you sacrificed to be where you are, for where you put the bar and everything you've done. When I end up breaking you out in a minute, you young guys, you find a senior and you hug him and you tell him how proud you are to be his teammate, because it's special.


GOLDMAN: And sure enough, Mike, a big old group hug followed.

PESCA: And did you get a hug, Tom?

GOLDMAN: No, I was working.

PESCA: Of course, Katy also got an earful of inspiration during the week of preparation. Who knows if any of it made any difference once helmets started cracking inside the Alamodome in the fourth quarter of the championship game.

GOLDMAN: And remember where we left the Eagles, deep inside Katy territory clinging to a four-point lead? Chuck Statler on Abilene station KZQQ made the call.

CHUCK STATLER: Ronnell takes a snap. Ronnell steps inside the 10, the five into the end zone for another Abilene Eagles touchdown.


PESCA: And after that, another Abilene Eagle touchdown. Katy didn't give up, but, really, the game was over.

GOLDMAN: And Abilene was the state champion.


PESCA: Senior defensive back Eric Gemberling was one elated Eagle.

ERIC GEMBERLING: Yeah, they were everything we expected and more. But we push until our heart gives out and then we give it one last push, and that's how the Eagles do it.

PESCA: At the same time, outside his team's deflated locker room, Katy senior defensive back, Sam Holl, reflected on the last of his three trips to the finals.

SAM HOLL: It was a great career. Couldn't ask for anything better, except for another state championship.

PESCA: Holl spoke of the end of his football career, but Katy's future is promising. In fact, their JV sophomore and freshmen teams were all undefeated this year.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, but there's plenty of competition out there, Mike. Take Abilene, the cousins who combined for well over 300 yards in the championship game, Hershel and Ronnell Sims, are only juniors. But right now the Eagles are enjoying that group hug.

PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News.

GOLDMAN: And Tom Goldman, NPR News, San Antonio.

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