Premont schools go on during year without football
Premont schools go on during year without football, district saved money
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.
"I want to protect the improvements we've made," he said.
When Singleton canceled sports, speculation ran wild about the repercussions his decision would have on enrollment, attendance and student engagement.
Yes, a few students left — enrollment is down 15 students from last year — but the district did not see the mass exodus that was predicted. Attendance is better this year, not worse, and more students are passing their classes.
"We're actually learning this year," senior Javier Moralez said.
School is calm — there hasn't been a single fight this year — and, when the high school held its fall open house, 155 people showed up. Last year, six came.
The district has made drastic progress toward accomplishing the mandates the state set in December for Premont ISD to remain open, Singleton said.
Just thinking about it takes him aback.
"How is it possible that we could accomplish all this from January?" he said.
Singleton worries that bringing back football could implode those achievements. The sport consumes vast amounts of student and teacher time in late night practices, weekend film review and travel to away games. That's time that could be better spent on academics, he said.
Then there's cost.
The district saved about $100,000 by canceling fall sports. Not only would Premont ISD have to foot that expense next season, it must also find a way to pay for necessary improvements to the aging and dilapidated Jimmy Livingston Football Stadium, where the only modern features are the shiny, locked padlocks dangling from the sagging and rusted chain link fence.
The rickety bleachers on the visitor's side are condemned. The scoreboard no longer lights up properly, and the bathrooms are subpar.
Still, the football field has remained relatively well-groomed, rescued from the encroaching carpet of grass burrs by Pee Wee football.
This season, instead of spending Friday nights watching the Premont Cowboys from the football stands, Pee Wee football coaches spend it on the field, edging and clipping the grass into a series of recognizable yard lines so they can play there Saturday morning.
"No football, just this," said Rick Ortiz, coach of the town's Pee Wee team.
Ortiz, who played defensive tackle for the Premont Cowboys in the late 1980s, wasn't happy when the district canceled sports. He thought the decision unfairly punished students and forced some to move elsewhere.
The good news is Premont's future can only get brighter, he said.
"We hit rock bottom already," Ortiz said.
Of all the sacrifices and tough choices that Premont has faced in its struggle to survive, the decision to give up sports likely caused the biggest ripple effect.
Friday nights typically meant a packed parking lot at the Oasis Restaurant on U.S. Highway 281, a staple for the postgame meal. Now, school buses drive past the restaurant on their way to other games.
To stay afloat, the Oasis has gone mobile.
"Let's put it this way: Thank god for the Eagle Ford Shale," restaurant manager Rosie Pena said of the booming oil and gas formation.
The restaurant operates two food trucks that travel as far as Shiner to feed the oil field workers. That business along with hunting season will help keep the restaurant in business, Pena said.
Still, Pena doesn't fault Singleton, a lunch regular at the Oasis, for canceling sports. She understood the necessity for the decision and the district's dire situation.
"I think it was a good idea," she said. "For us to keep our school, we can do without sports for a little while."
And, as a grandmother of six Premont schoolchildren, she's seen the improvements.
"It's getting better," she said. "It's getting stronger."
Singleton expects to make the decision in November. A University Interscholastic League executive committee has the final decision on whether to allow Premont to participate in football next season. The committee will meet in December.
Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times, http://www.caller.com
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