Kearney High School senior Cale Garrett walked into a QuikTrip convenience story earlier this fall — or perhaps it was a Price Chopper grocery store; he doesn’t recall the exact details — and he was approached by someone he didn’t know. The man recognized Garrett as the leading tackler of the Kearney football team, and he had a few questions.
Was this the year the Bulldogs could get over the hump and win a state championship after bowing out in the state semifinals two straight seasons? How would they replace eight starters on both sides of the football? Where did Garrett plan to continue his career in college?
And so on.
“This town makes you feel like a superstar already,” Garrett said. “It’s really cool when you see people around town and they know who you are. We try not to take it too seriously, but it’s pretty cool.”
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The encounter isn’t entirely unusual in a one-high school town that adores its football team.
Kearney will play Webb City for the Missouri Class 4 state championship at 1 p.m. Friday in St. Louis, and if the support wasn’t already abundantly clear, it’s plastered across the streets these days, with signs wishing the Bulldogs luck.
“They never leave any doubt that they’re thinking of you,” Kearney coach Greg Jones said.
Another state finalist football team can relate.
Odessa will face John Burroughs at 11 a.m. Saturday for the Missouri Class 3 championship. The game has also garnered the full attention of a small town. Flags representing the school’s red and black colors hang from the light poles.
The Odessa police and fire departments will escort the football team out of town on its way to the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
“This is a football town,” said Odessa coach Mark Thomas, who is in his second stint as the coach with the school. “That was one of the main reasons why I jumped at the opportunity to come back here. They love their high school football.”
Need more evidence?
Odessa held its annual holiday parade earlier this week. The football team marched through the line, and it wasn’t exactly a subtle inclusion.
“When they came through, the crowd just went absolutely berserk,” Thomas said.
None of this small town high school football mania is new to Thomas, who previously coached at Kearney — where he led the team to state championships in 2002 and 2003. On the flip side, Jones preceded Thomas as the coach at Odessa.
That offers each of them a unique connection as both their current and former programs fight for the same goal — one that is a bit more of a rarity for Odessa, which has not won a state title since 1994. Kearney claimed its third state championship in 2009.
“You know, I’ve been fortunate to have coached both places, and when you have a community that embraces the team, it just makes the kids feel like everyone has their back,” said Thomas, who won his first state championship as a head coach while leading Boonville in 1998. “That’s something that’s important to them. It’s important to all of us. It’s what makes us who we are.”
The sense of support is instilled early. In Kearney, all of the elementary schools adopted the same nickname — the Bulldogs — as the high school. A kid grows up a Bulldog. He or she graduates a Bulldog.
And many stay one, too.
Jones says he’s often stopped by alumni when he’s out in public. Some ask about the team. Some thank him for spending the time with their kids.
And some, well, have a few suggestions for improvements.
“That’s part of it,” Jones said with a smile. “Hey, at least that means they care, right?”