This story originally appeared in The Pioneer's Oct. 17 print and e-editions.
The air horns and bell behind the end zone didn't sound until the 3:35 mark of third quarter in Iraan High School's football game against Alpine on Oct. 12.
Jermaine Bernal's 75-yard kickoff return accounted for the celebration, which was followed byKyler Miller's 18-yard touchdown run.
It made the score Alpine 46, Iraan 6. The final score would be 52-6 as the Braves dropped to 0-7 on the season.
The school with a proud football tradition is trying to avoid its first winless season since consecutive 0-10 campaigns in 1961 and 1962. The team has not had a losing record since a 3-7 mark in 1988. Its last one-win season came in 1979.
The team has an open week Friday, Oct. 18 before heading into its three-game district schedule against Wink, McCamey, and Van Horn. Because 2A-2 District 1 has only four teams, the Braves are already assured a playoff game.
This season was going to be a challenge with a decline in enrollment at the high school that will also create a challenges for the 2020 and 2021 season. By 2022, the high school will start growing with an influx of students from larger classes in grades seven and below.
The season has seen the team lacking number both in players and on the scoreboard.
Starting with a 80-0 season-opening loss to Crane, the Braves have been outscored 369 to 38.
By the time the Alpine game ended, Iraan had just 10 players on the field. They had started the game with 13, and the season with 16.
First-year head coach Matthew Luddeke knew he would face challenges coming in.
“They're doing as good as they can be,” Luddeke said. “Our kids have been dealt a hard hand this year. Our motto has been to find a way – no matter what. Whether it is with 13 guys or 16 guys, we want to finish. These guys come out and work every day. We expect them to give us everything they've got.”
Luddeke said that he hopes to have three players back for district, but said he doesn't want to rush someone back.
So few players means there is no time to coach the offense and defense in the game between series. It also makes practice more difficult with no players to run the opponent's plays.
“In my life, I've had plenty of challenges, he said. “I don't know if they necessarily compare to each other. I truly believe that God doesn't give us anything more than we can handle. Whatever challenges He puts in our way, He is going to equip us with the tools to overcome them.”
Iraan-Sheffield ISD Superintendent Michael Meek has been impressed with how Luddeke has served as coach and athletic director.
“ I couldn't ask for a better athletic director,” Meek said. “He's not only an outstanding young man, but he's done a great job coaching kids. They're following him and the kids have done great.”
When the season started, Iraan had 10 seniors on the roster. During their freshman year, the Braves went went 15-1 and lost in the state title game to Bremond. As sophomores, the team went 7-5 with two playoff games. As juniors, the team was 10-2 with two playoff games.
Yet, the players haven't given up.
“That's what I'm most proud about,” Luddeke said. “These guys have a great attitude. They love each other and play for each other. They're coachable every week, and we prepare like we've been 6-0 for the season.
“That's important when you have a season like this. I think it's easy for a lot of kids to face that adversity and throw the towel in. They know we love them and know we care about them.”
The school and the community will face a big question in February when the UIL realigns football districts. Iraan is currently in the 2A-2 level. But, with a high school enrollment under 90 students, the school will likely be dropped to 1A – which plays six-man football.
The school could petition to continue playing 11-man football at the 2A-2 level while dropping to 1A in other sports.
Or, the school could commit to playing six-man football until the next realignment in 2022.
“It's something we will look at,” Meek said. “There is no reason to move to six-man if we are turning right around to 11-man in years. If conditions dictate it, we could look at six-man.”
The team is graduating 10 players after this season, leaving six potential returnees. Next year's freshman class will bring less than a dozen players. So, it is realistic that the team will have the same number of players next season as it has this season.
Meek said the community has been supportive of the players and coaching staff.
In a sign that not all is negative, a ground-breaking ceremony was held Oct. 14 for a bond-funded project to renovate the current field house, build a new concession stand and ticket office, install new stadium lights, as well as a new plaza leading into the athletic complex.
“We appreciate the community supporting us on this bond,” School Board President Steve Garlock told CBS 7. “I really feel there’s a lot of stuff being done in Iraan-Sheffield that is good, and we’ve had difficulties and stuff, but I believe this is the cornerstone of our community.”