FALFURRIAS, Texas (AP) — Friday night belonged to Mariela Navarro, radiant in a red-and-white cheerleading uniform under the floodlights of the Premont Cowboys stadium.
That sacred space between the football players and the bleachers, that was her spot. Not this cold metal bleacher at the 30-yard-line, sidelined with the other girls who swapped spotless white tennis shoes for strappy sandals and pompoms for designer purses.
Mariela should've been the one on the track pumping her fist, revving up the crowd.
Instead, she and the others watched at rival Falfurrias High School with palpable envy as its cheerleaders below, with matching bouncy ponytails and big pink bows, chanted "Two bits, four bits ..." and careened backward in a sequence of handsprings.
A friend leaned over to Mariela.
"Let's just go down there and cheer," she said. She sounded only half-joking.
The team scored and the cheerleaders skittered along the track, lobbing goodies at the crowd.
Mariela couldn't share in their excitement. Her heart just wasn't in it.
"I feel very, very empty, like a part of me is missing," she said.
Since Premont ISD stopped sports to save money and focus on academics, the small South Texas town has struggled with the compromise: Friday night lights are gone in Premont, but the sacrifice ultimately could save the district from state mandated closure.
Now, nearly a year after Superintendent Ernest Singleton canceled football in a drastic and controversial move that grabbed national headlines, he faces an even tougher decision: Should he bring it back?
In a district that has become a case study in education reform, students are performing better in the classrooms, but they long for Friday nights on the field.
To fill football's void, the high school has been holding weekly pep rallies to boost student morale and foster the kind of collective pride towns typically get from football.
The students love them. They dress up in their class colors, play silly games, paint their faces, dye their hair and make noisemakers from gravel-filled plastic bottles and the spray-painted ends of 2-by-4s.
"The spunk is back," art teacher Steven Salinas said.
Even the too-cool seniors get into it, screaming with kind of fury reserved for Hail Mary touchdown passes in the last seconds of a tied game.
But, as soon as the earsplitting contest for the spirit stick contest ends, Premont's amped-up teens stampede out of the gym without much to do.
Sometimes, they play pickup basketball games at town's dilapidated old gym. Sometimes, they go home and crash: "I go home and take a nap, pretty much every day," said Nathan Powell, a senior and former football player. "It's been awkward adjusting."
And some Fridays, they caravan together to neighboring Falfurrias to watch some of their former classmates play for the Fightin' Jerseys.
Falfurrias and Premont are longtime rivals with an ongoing competition both friendly and fierce (When rumors swirled last year that the state planned to shut down Premont and force students to attend Falfurrias, one Premont freshman sneered, "I don't want to be a cow.")
Mariela, Nathan and the other Premont kids stick out like sore thumbs at the games.
They huddle together in the bleachers and refuse to wear green. They rarely cheer, and when they do, it's usually for Alex Infante, a former Premont football player who has become the Jerseys' star quarterback.
"It's hard to be happy for someone else when things are so bad for you," Mariela said. "I'm not trying to throw myself a pity party. I'm here supporting them. But it's hard to bring myself to clap when I should be down there cheering."
A small town native himself, Singleton understands football's deep-rooted cultural significance in a place like Premont. He understands how the game draws together disparate groups into one place at one time for one purpose. Like church on Sunday. People who don't talk to one another during the week, people who don't even get along, sit side-by-side in the bleachers on Friday night, wear red and root for the Cowboys.
Singleton gets all that. He's just not sure he's willing to sacrifice the district's successes for the return of Friday night lights.