Creating co-ed team saved season for tiny West Texas school

WELCH, Texas — Murissa Horton set her feet, steeled herself and was knocked to the court taking a charge from a barrel-chested teenage boy who outweighed her by more than 100 pounds.

The 5-foot-6 high school senior bounced back up, dusted herself off, adjusted her ponytail and got back to work.

Boys against girls isn't just something you see at practice for the Dawson Dragons. For one of the smallest high schools in Texas, injuries and dwindling enrollment forced the Dragons to consolidate the girls and boys basketball teams. The co-ed squad is playing a boys schedule, with Horton as a starter and one of the team's best players.

"That Horton girl can play, I would take her anytime," Sands coach Billy Grumbles said after his team beat Dawson 51-23 last month.

To understand this unusual situation requires a bit of history about this slice of West Texas.

Dawson is located in the town of Welch, population 222 and the kind of place where everyone knows your name and they probably know your mother, grandfather and some of your cousins, too. Tumbleweeds roll down main street, and Welch is surrounded by acres upon acres of cotton fields that are dotted with oil wells, pumping along and leaving a slightly sour smell in the air.

It's a place so small that there isn't even a Dairy Queen, often a mainstay for hamlets in flyover states. There's a lone convenience store and the main business in town is a cotton gin, Welch Cotton Inc. The gin is the lifeblood of Welch. It provides jobs, gives a boost to the economy and serves as a community outpost, a place where farmers and other townsfolk stop to catch up with one another and gossip about the local goings on.

In this town it's impossible to ignore the sweeping presence of cotton. The grass along the highways has a white tinge because of a cotton candy-like coating of the fiber that escapes the gin as it separates seeds from the cotton. More of the delicate fiber floats through the air in gossamer-thin strings that make it seem like spiders have been working overtime spinning webs.

Glen Phipps owns Welch Cotton and is one of the school's biggest supporters, donating money to various causes at Dawson and bankrolling a trip for all the school's students to make the 63-mile trek to Lubbock to watch a Texas Tech basketball game.

His family has been part of the community for generations. He graduated from here in 1973, his grandfather was on Dawson's first school board and two other relatives currently serve on the board.

"The school is so important to me, my family and our community in that the school brings everybody together," he said. "The school is kind of that tie that binds, that makes it a community for everybody."

This town knows it can always count on cotton, but oil is much more fickle and a major contributor to the situation the basketball team is in. Just five years ago, property values in the district were more than $260 million. Last year, plummeting oil prices put the values at just $90 million and left Dawson, like all schools dependent on property taxes, scrambling for ways to remain open.

The uncertainty prompted the majority of Dawson's 12-person junior class to transfer elsewhere last summer. That exodus combined with two Christmas break transfers left the school with just 18 students. They had seven boys to field their six-man football team this fall, but with a three-person eighth grade class, all girls, there won't be enough students to play football next season.

There may not be enough to put separate basketball teams on the court, either.

"In the bigger schools, it's next man up," said Jeff Fleenor, the principal and superintendent who has two daughters on the basketball team. "Here there's not that next man."

Dawson basketball teams played separately before the holiday break, but nagging injuries often left the five-girl team with just three healthy players. And after two of the seven members of the boys team returned to South Texas after their migrant-worker parents finished seasonal work, the school's two coaches and Fleenor decided to meld the group into one team to guarantee a complete season.

The University Interscholastic League, which regulates public high school sports in Texas, approved the consolidation with the condition that the team play a boy's schedule through the season.

"The girls were in trouble, the boys were in trouble," coach Ed Robison said. "It wasn't that we saved the girls program or the boys, but we were able to help out both programs by combining. At least we have a stable team that will show up and be able to play every night."

No one can remember a time when teams were consolidated like this. But several coaches in the area recalled times where small schools had a single girl who mostly rode the bench on the boys team because there wasn't a girls team.

The Dragons play in a gym that has just five rows of seats on the home side and three on the visitor's. It's the focal point of the one-building school that serves children from kindergarten to 12th grade. A painting of a large purple dragon in midflight dominates one wall and the words to the school song highlight another.

Those words paint a picture of the landscape the school calls home: "In the midst of dark oil derricks, cotton fields in bloom, stands the best of royal high schools, Dawson here's to you."

The 18-year-old Horton is expected to be the school's valedictorian this year. She's thoughtful and polite and exudes an eloquence of someone much older. She averaged almost 20 points for the girl's team, but has had to adjust her game and become more of a facilitator now that she's competing against boys.

It's not an ideal situation for her and the other four girls on the team, but Horton focuses on the positives of the compromise.

"We're able to respect the opportunity more and we're even more thankful for it," she said. "Yeah, it can be kind of a curse in some ways but more than that it's a blessing that we've learned to handle adversity that nobody else could even imagine."

The girls say most of Dawson's opponents have been respectful. There have been a few sexist comments, and Robison said he's heard some of the boys from other teams saying things like: 'Hey, babe, what's your number? What's going on?'"

Horton tries to tune out those things and wishes it wasn't an issue.

"We're not out here as girl basketball players, we're just basketball players," she said. "We want to play the game. We're not asking you to play us differently."

The team hasn't fared well since the consolidation, but did beat Loop 51-21 in mid-January for its first win as a co-ed squad to earn team of the week honors from a Lubbock television station. Coaches and players take great pride in that recognition. Though they often end up on the wrong end of lopsided games, the Dragons are improving and believe they're gaining respect around the district.

"It's not like a side show," said coach Tonja Edens, the former girls coach who teams with Robison to lead the co-ed group. "We're out here competing."

Grumbles, the Sands coach, shared the message he had for his guys before they faced Dawson.

"I told my team you've got to play against them just like they're boys because we're playing a boys schedule," he said. "You're not playing against girls. You've got to take them seriously. In this situation it doesn't matter what gender they are, you have to play like it's just another high school game."

Edens, who played college basketball at a Division III school, said there was some concern about the safety of the girls because of the size and strength of varsity boys. They asked each girl about the risks and all agreed it was worth it to salvage their season.

She's had to adjust her coaching style to accommodate the change.

"You're not going to get bigger than them or stronger than them," she said. "So you're going to have to get smarter. You need to stay on the ground. You need to block them out."

Donovan Thornton is the only senior boy on the team, now split evenly with five boys and five girls. The soft-spoken Thornton raves about the leadership Horton has provided and said some of the things he's heard from opposing teams have ticked him off.

"It does upset me because we came together just to play basketball," he said. "We want to play basketball and the fact that people want to downgrade us, it's not right."

Other than that, he's been perfectly happy with this set up because it ensured that Dawson gets to play every game in his last season, which has only a few games left. He believes the group has merged well and said a sign hanging in the middle of the gym that read: "Peanut Butter & Jelly" is a representation of that fact.

"It's an analogy like the girls and boys go together like peanut butter and jelly go together on a sandwich," he said before flashing a big grin and trotting back to practice.

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