Boys basketball games at Valentine High feature no home pep band. No cheerleaders.
Then again, there’s no student section. At least no high school students.
The Pirates’ game-day roster routinely consists of four boys and three girls, a hybrid allowed by the state governing body for public-school athletics to field a full starting lineup. A fourth girl serves as team manager, but she practices with the team and is prepared to suit up if needed to complete a starting five.
And those are the eight students who comprise the entire student body at Valentine High, the smallest of 1,463 member schools this academic year in Texas’ University Interscholastic League.
“We make do with what we have,” sophomore Elvis Tarango said.
“Friday night lights” here are inside the gym, which features five rows of lacquered bleachers on only one side. More than 100 of Texas’ smallest public high schools field six-man football teams, but Valentine – population estimated at 135 – hasn’t done even that since 1966.
Valentine most recently had a girls basketball team three years ago, a girls volleyball squad seven years ago.
UIL publicist Kate Hector said the organization can’t say how many schools use girls on boys team since there’s no requirement to report that information.
Enrollment in the entire district, kindergarten through 12th grade, is 39. That’s up 10 over last year, bolstered by some transfers, and the average is around 50. Town population has dwindled for years primarily because of the combination of prolonged drought here in arid Far West Texas and the lure of new jobs in the oil fields a few hours to the north near Midland and Odessa.
“We struggle with numbers,” said Doug Cook, in his sixth year as superintendent, “but we offer a lot.”
The team got off to a 5-0 start having played junior varsity and freshman rosters from nearby UIL neighbors plus one small private school.
“Nearby” is a relative term in Texas’ Big Bend region. The nearest town, Marfa, is 34 miles to the southeast. It’s 38 miles up to Van Horn and 40 miles east to Fort Davis. Between each are ranches, farms and scattered desert vegetation. Not so much as a gas station or convenience store. It’s about 20 miles due west to Mexico, which means occasional visits from the border patrol.
There are two churches, a public library and the dental practice that Iris Korus opened five years ago.
“The school’s pretty much everything,” Korus said. “That’s what keeps everybody going together.”
When basketball coach Lonnie Flippen provided a recent tour of the town in his pickup, he pointed out more abandoned commercial structures than occupied ones. That included a shuttered café that his family owned decades ago.
“This community’s pretty depressed, but we’re still proud to be here.” – basketball coach Lonnie Flippen
“This community’s pretty depressed,” Flippen said, “but we’re still proud to be here.”
With no eatery of any kind in Valentine, townspeople often drop in on basketball games primarily to buy a burger at the concession table operated by the Travel Club, helping fund annual student trips to destinations like Italy and Australia.
“It’s a night out for the town,” assistant principal Dawn Houy said.
The three senior boys who join Tarango in this season’s starting lineup – 6-4 Latham Garnsey, 6-1 Rye Webb and 6-1 Enrique Navarrete – came into the season in excellent shape having run cross country in the fall. Garnsey won the district and regional championships and placed 12th in the state Class 1A meet.
Tarango, a 5-8 sophomore, and his sister, 4-9 senior Gaby, complete the starting lineup. Elvis admitted it’s a little odd playing high school basketball with his sister. “But she’s pretty good,” he quickly added.
Gaby was one of two girls who played last season with five boys. She primarily joined the team as a favor to the other girl, senior Maria Borunda (valedictorian in a class of two).
“I figured I might as well finish it off my senior year,” Gaby said. “Last year, I was a little nervous the first couple of games but sort of got used to it.”
The two girls who usually come off the bench this season are 5-1 freshmen, Jessie Garcia and Abbey Hardie. Manager Jaci Garcia, a 5-2 sophomore and Jessie’s sister, keeps the team book at the scorer’s table. She most recently played as an eighth grader on the girls team.
For the third consecutive season, Valentine’s girls could participate in high school basketball only by playing with boys.
“The amount of people to make a team and have subs was pretty crucial,” – Abbey Hardie
“The amount of people to make a team and have subs was pretty crucial,” Hardie said.
Flippen, who has spent almost all of his 35 years in Texas high school coaching at small schools, recognizes the girls’ challenge.
“That’s why I try to put ‘em in positions where they’re not going to have the likelihood of being knocked down and trampled,” he said, “but some of them may end up to have to be in that situation.”
Defensively, Flippen tries to keep the team in a zone to avoid literally sizable mismatches for any of the girls.
His first Valentine boys team, in 2012-13, included one girl, 5-10 senior Kimberly Morton. “On any given night, she was our second-best player,” Flippen said. The Pirates that season went 12-14, two of the defeats coming in overtime. Last year’s team with five boys and two girls finished 8-15.
Practice is almost more challenging than the games, as is the case at many small schools. Flippen often separates the boys from the girls and has them work two-on-two. They’ll also discuss the types of offenses and defenses that they’ll face in competition.
Said Garnsey: “It’s kind of weird for the opponents.”
Marfa coach Jeff Jones concurred based on last season’s experience.
“It affected the way we played a little bit,” Jones said. “I don’t know how those girls take it, but I don’t think they would like people treating them any different.”
About a week ago, Elvis Tarango was ruled out for up to six weeks following an appendectomy. And when both Garcia sisters reported sick for the Dec. 2 game against the freshman team from Class 3A Alpine, the Pirates fielded a roster of three boys and two girls.
Then, their manpower situation really got bad.
Navarrete fouled out with about a minute left in the fourth quarter, the Pirates leading by seven points. Valentine’s remaining two boys and two girls didn’t score again, allowed two baskets and escaped with a 31-28 victory for their fifth win.
The Pirates lost three games last weekend in a local tournament, including to district opponents Marfa and Fort Davis.
The UIL’s second-smallest high school is located about 90 miles east of Valentine in the town of Marathon (pronounced “MAR-a-thin,” not “MAR-a-thon”). This year’s enrollment at Marathon High is 10 – four boys and six girls.
But the Mustangs weren’t able to field a co-ed boys basketball team like Valentine. Rick Garcia – athletic director, teacher and principal – said some of the girls have never played organized basketball. Asking them to pick up the sport by facing boys teams wouldn’t have been right, Garcia said.
this occurred a year after Marathon fielded a co-ed team. That was two boys and three girls – at least when the season began. When a player was lost to injury in December, the Mustangs’ season suddenly ended.
“We will have individual sports in the spring,” Garcia noted.
All eight Valentine students are planning to participate in varsity athletics this spring – track, golf, tennis. Garnsey could contend for the 1A Division II state title in the high jump after finishing third last year. Valentine High has no track, so he trains with high-jump bars sunken into old tires and a runway consisting of rubber mats placed across a gravel lot.
Valentine tried to revive six-man football seven years ago. The field behind the gym still has goalposts but no stands. That lasted only a few games before the Pirates ran short of healthy players.
The school still holds a homecoming each fall. There’s a dinner and a dance. Depending on attendance, there’s a “washer” tournament and a team roping competition.
It’s difficult for many at Valentine High to consider what appears ahead for the boys basketball team next season, after three boys and one girl graduate. Elvis Tarango is scheduled to be joined by only one incoming freshman boy. That would give the Pirates a majority-girls lineup, allowed by UIL rules.
Flippen admitted it would be difficult to put the girls through that. Valentine could again field a girls team – with no subs.
“Maybe we’ll get some more transfers,” he said.