They’ve been playing high school football in Mineola since 1912, and never before have the Yellow Jackets played for a state championship.
That will change Thursday in what will be a watershed moment for the small East Texas town, which will be mostly vacant when the Yellow Jackets face Cameron Yoe for the Class 3A Division I crown at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Hundreds of fans will make the trip to Arlington for Thursday night’s game. Churches are taking their members by bus, and the local radio station, KMOO, has chartered three buses, with two more on standby.
And for those who can’t make the trip, the town’s historic movie theater, The Select, around since 1920, will show the game live.
Mineola coach Joe Drennon joked that the moment the team “arrived” might have been when the town switched the date of the Christmas parade to Dec. 4 so it wouldn’t conflict with a playoff game against Pottsboro on Dec. 6.
“Boy, we hit the big time,” Drennon said. “We made the Christmas parade move.”
Mineola High School will be one of 20 teams playing for University Interscholastic League state football championships at AT&T Stadium over the next three days. While many of the larger classifications feature schools from the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, most of the small schools come from towns far from the state’s population centers.
In those towns — whether it’s Mineola, Albany in West Texas or Canadian in the Panhandle — if you’re not talking football, no one’s listening.
A game to remember
Mineola started the season with three consecutive losses, but as the Yellow Jackets began their run through the playoffs, Drennon has seen former players come out of the woodwork to voice support.
As he talked to the Star-Telegram, one former player left a message telling Drennon the whole town was behind him.
“It’s been like that constantly,” Drennon said. “I had somebody come on the field after the game the other night, who played here in the 1950s, telling me how much it meant to him.”
Players from the 1949 and 1962 teams — which made the state quarterfinals — returned to Mineola and rode in the Christmas parade. An 83-year-old from the 1949 squad was among the former players who gave the team a pep talk.
“He told them they would remember this for the rest of their lives,” said Tonya Slayton, the head of the local booster club and general manager of KMOO.
In downtown Mineola, a shopping hot spot during the holidays, most of the storefronts have “Go Jackets” in their windows, and orange flags are posted along U.S. 80.
But the Mineola Community Bank has the largest collection of orange.
Robin Averett, a vice president at the bank, decorated its entryway with banners and signs, and the display has grown each week as the team won.
“It looks ugly with my Christmas decorations, but that’s OK,” Averett said. “It can’t come down. Everybody knows that.”
Superstitions and traditions — they’re all part of the game.
‘Pretty dang excited’
In Albany, about 21/2 hours west of Arlington, the number of wins — 14 — is not far behind the number of inches of rain the town has received this year — 18.75. Folks hope the Lions can bring home the school’s first state title since 1961.
“In small towns, football is like another religion, so everybody here is pretty dang excited,” said Ryan Preslar, 19, who is home on break from the University of North Texas in Denton.
Preslar, who works at EZ Feed & Supply when home — and who proudly played for the Lions — said “pretty much every store in town will be closed.”
Justin and Melissa Read own Sweet Tees, a T-shirt business, and their son, Colin Read, plays offensive tackle for Albany. The Reads have been busy making T-shirts, whether special orders for parents or playoff shirts for everyone else.
“This is a big deal for a small town,” Read said.
Albany opens the long weekend of games, playing Bremond for the Class 2A Division II state championship at 10 a.m. Thursday.
After a pep rally Tuesday night, fans continued a playoff ritual of beating a 55-gallon steel drum until the team leaves town for the game, which in this case was Wednesday morning.
Cheerleaders started out beating the drum, Read said, followed by parents and members of the community, who switch out hourly.
“There’s no top left to it,” Read said.
‘It’ll be a ghost town’
In Canadian, northwest of Amarillo and three hours closer to Oklahoma City than to Arlington, residents were driving in caravans to the Metroplex for Thursday’s game against Mason for the Class 2A Division I championship.
“It’ll be a ghost town,” said Coleman Bartlett, manager of Bartlett’s Lumber and Hardware Store in Canadian. “Everything will be shut down.”
He said, however, that his business will remain open — the oil fields don’t shut down for football — and that he’ll stay behind to man the store.
“I’d love to go, but someone’s got to stay and work,” Bartlett said.
He said that surrounding towns are showing support and that the team received police escorts as it traveled, first down U.S. 83 through Shamrock and Wellington before catching U.S. 287 in Childress.
“They’re putting signs up for us in Shamrock,” Bartlett said.
Indeed, Wheeler County Constable Kenneth Martindale met the team caravan outside Shamrock and escorted the Wildcats through town Wednesday morning as people stood along the street and held up signs.
“They had an escort in Wheeler before Shamrock,” said Leigh Isbell, a dispatcher in Shamrock. “In the Panhandle, it’s like we’re one big family.”
Yellow Jacket fever
In Mineola, which started as a railroad town that still has regular Amtrak service, one thing that remains something of a mystery: Why is the team mascot, a Yellow Jacket, bright orange?
Local fans like to say their Yellow Jackets turn orange when they get angry.
But the best guess is that the Yellow Jackets are orange because most of the school’s earliest teachers were University of Texas graduates, according to teacher Jim Phillips, who serves as the school’s historian.
While Yellow Jacket fever sweeps Mineola, Averett found one resident who seemed immune.
“I just came back from Kiwanis, and there’s a lady that just moved here from Missouri, and she said, ‘I just don’t get it,’” Averett said. “Well I told her, ‘I don’t know how to explain it to you, but this is a big deal.’”
But Averett, a 1992 graduate of Mineola High, said there’s been an outpouring of emotion from longtime residents.
“It means everything to this town right now,” Averett said. “I think we’re going to turn out the lights and roll up the sidewalks. I think anybody that is able is going to be there.”
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698
Lee Williams, 817-390-7840
UIL state football championships
All games will be played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Tickets are $15 at the gate. All games will be televised live by Fox Sports Southwest.
2A Division II, 10 a.m.
Albany (14-0) vs. Bremond (14-0)
2A Division I, 1 p.m.
Canadian (14-0) vs. Mason (14-0)
3A Division II, 5 p.m.
Waskom (14-1) vs. Newtown (12-3)
3A Division I, 8 p.m.
Mineola (12-3) vs. Cameron Yoe (11-4)
4A Division II, noon
Gilmer (15-0) vs. West-Orange Stark (13-2)
4A Division I, 4 p.m.
Argyle (15-0) vs. Navasota (15-0)
5A Division II, 8 p.m.
Ennis (13-2) vs. Cedar Park (12-3)
5A Division I, noon
Aledo (14-1) vs. Temple (13-1)
6A Division II, 4 p.m.
Cedar Hill (13-2) vs. Katy (14-1)
6A Division I, 8 p.m.
Allen (15-0) vs. Houston Cypress Ranch (13-2)