Iraan senior quarterback Clayton Kent has led the Braves to an undefeated season and the cusp of a storybook ending at Thursday’s Class 2A Division II state championship game at AT&T Stadium. Yet when Kent — who led his team through a final practice Wednesday at Aledo High’s indoor facility — takes the field for the last time in his high school career and glimpses his younger sister Katie, a cheerleader, on the sideline, he might feel like he’s already won.
Katie Kent, 15, suffered two broken vertebrae in a bus crash after the team’s quarterfinal playoff victory Dec. 2. Killed in the head-on collision was Iraan cheerleader sponsor Elizabeth Pope, 52. Pope’s sister and fellow sponsor Christina Garlock remains hospitalized in Abilene with leg injuries from being pinned in the driver’s seat.
Kent was one of six cheerleaders on the small bus that had no way to escape an oncoming tractor-trailer that had lost control and crossed the median on I-20 near Big Spring.
“It’s awesome, she’s doing fine,” Clayton Kent said after the Braves wrapped up Wednesday’s practice. “I mean she’s got braces on and everything, but she’s in good spirits. She gets to come to the game is the big thing. She wouldn’t miss it, I don’t think, under any circumstances.”
Katie Kent and cheerleader Kiara Hodge suffered the most serious injuries among the cheerleaders, though all six were taken to the hospital. All of them will be in uniform and on the sideline Thursday cheering the Braves as they face two-time defending Class 2A Division II champion Bremond. Kickoff is bright and early at 10 a.m.
“We’ll have a couple chairs for the ones who need to sit,” said Tracey Myers, Iraan’s cross-country, basketball and tennis coach and the wife of assistant football coach Brant Myers.
Iraan (pronounced Eye-ruh-ANN) is in West Texas, about 340 miles southwest of Fort Worth. The football team left the town of about 1,200 people in twin bus liners at 11 a.m. Wednesday, stopped for lunch in San Angelo and hit some late afternoon traffic before rolling into Aledo at about 5:30 p.m. After about an hour of practice, they headed to a team dinner and finally onto the Sheraton in Arlington, where it would soon be lights out for a 5 a.m. wake-up call.
The cheerleaders made the trek Wednesday afternoon on a chartered bus with members of the marching band. They headed straight to the hotel, leaving the football team to get in one final practice.
“Our kids did a really nice job last week dealing with everything that went on,” said coach Mark Kirchhoff, who is in his fifth season at Iraan after leading Falls City to a Class A title in 2010. “Just to be with the team and really they’re all brothers, they’re a close-knit group anyway. It was a trying week emotionally, but our kids came through it really well.”
The Braves’ stop in Aledo came by invitation from Aledo offensive coordinator Robby Jones, who just before Iraan’s arrival was putting the finishing touches on his game plan as the Bearcats practiced for their own Class 5A Division II state title game at AT&T Stadium on Friday night. Jones had read a newspaper article about the crash, and after the Braves won their semifinal game last weekend in Abilene, he called Iraan assistant coach Chad Tutle, whose father, Gene, had coached with Jones more than 15 years ago at Munday High School — the team Iraan beat to advance to its first state title game since winning it all in 1996.
“I just told him, ‘We’ve got an indoor facility if you need it,’ ” Jones said.
Since the crash, condolences and support have come pouring in. At Abilene’s Shotwell Stadium, nearly 1,000 cheerleaders from schools across West Texas attended last week’s semifinal game. They sat together in one section all wearing their individual school uniforms and black and red ribbons, Iraan’s colors, in their hair. The rest of the Iraan side was filled to capacity by the townspeople and many more who came simply to lend their support.
“It was just unbelievable. I never would have expected that much support from all over Texas, and having that many people at the game was just unreal,” said Clayton Kent, the quarterback. “It was something we’ve never experienced before. Not just the cheerleaders, but there was just a bunch of people that came to show their support. Our side was full.”
Thursday morning’s kickoff will likely keep such a large crowd from pouring into the Dallas Cowboys’ home, but the Braves are certain they’ll have some 1,200 supporters in the stands — the entire town.
“Iraan is going to shut down tomorrow and they’re all going to be here at 10 o’clock in the morning,” Kirchhoff said.
Pope and Garlock — who underwent a second surgery Tuesday — were part of a large family in the area. They both attended Iraan High and both remained fixtures at the school. Pope was an aide at the elementary school and oversaw the computer lab. Her children are grown. Garlock has three children at Iraan: freshman Ryan, who played on the junior varsity squad this season, and senior twins Steven, the Braves’ starting left tackle, and Lauren, a basketball player and cheerleader.
The Iraan girls basketball team had a tournament the morning after the quarterfinal playoff, so Lauren bypassed a ride on the cheerleader bus and instead drove home from the football game with her dad.
Pope was the booster club president and took charge of designing the team’s playoff T-shirts after each victory. Myers said the shirts were the topic of their last conversation as they packed up cheerleading equipment that night in Colorado City.
“We were hugging and high-fiving and talking about the brand-new playoff shirts,” Myers said. “The last thing we did was give each other a hug and, you know, ‘Go Braves.’ ”
Once this football journey comes to an end Thursday afternoon, the gravity of what transpired barely two weeks ago will be processed in a way that hasn’t been possible yet. Getting a final victory, Clayton Kent said, would be a fine way to close a chapter that no one in Iraan will ever forget.
“That would be huge. That would help the town so much,” Kent said. “The town already loves football, and with this tragedy it would bring everyone up even more.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan