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Gold trophies are the first thing kids see inside the Katy High School field house, and that's by design.
"It's not all right to be mediocre, it's not all right to be average," says Gary Joseph, the school's head football coach since 2003. "They understand."
During the last three decades, few high school football teams anywhere have won as often as the Katy Tigers. The team has made it to the playoffs every year except twice since 1986, advancing to the state's final four teams nine times and winning the championship four of those years.
That résumé made Katy a perfect client for Titus Sports Marketing, a Dallas-based company founded in 2003 that makes its money by setting up big games between high schools, extending the media attention normally paid to college and pro teams to the secondary school level.
Titus brokered a deal in March to bring the football team from Cypress Bay High — a school in south Florida — to Katy's Rhodes Stadium during the first week of October.
The game was hyped as the "Battle at Rhodes" and sold to ESPN; it was the first time Katy would play on national TV.
It was exposure for the town and school, for the players hoping for college scholarships, and the district stood to make a bundle.
Then, a glitch — the Tigers opened the season with an out-of-district game against the North Shore Mustangs and lost.
It was unfamiliar ground. Last season, the team had gone undefeated and won state. Even after losing almost every starter to graduation, this year's team was ranked third in Texas in Associated Press preseason polls.
"You're expected to do good, expected to live up to a perfect season. With parents and teachers and stuff, they'll stop and ask you how it's going, and it gets overwhelming," says Parker Ray, a senior who started his first game at quarterback this year. "If someone would have told us before the season that we were ranked number three, we would have asked why."
Still, the team was resilient after North Shore; it wasn't a disaster to lose by four points to a state-ranked team that hadn't lost a regular season game since 2000. Anyway, everyone in town knew the Tigers should have won.
The "We're Katy" attitude was in full force during the next week, heading into a game against the Woodlands Highlanders.
"It was like we're not scared anymore, like we're not going to be timid," Ray says.
The feelings didn't last.
Early in the second quarter, Ray scrambled to the left sideline on a pass play, looked downfield, then tucked the ball in his gut and ran. A Woodlands player slammed into Ray's knees, flipping his feet straight up while another player launched into his chest, sending him back to the ground. Ray's body bounced off the turf, drawing roars from the Highlander crowd.
On the team's next possession, Ray sprinted up the middle of the field until a Woodlands player caused a violent collision, the crown of the defender's helmet popping the bend of his elbow.
Ray lay on the turf with an arm he couldn't move, and spent the rest of the game in the hospital with a pinched nerve and a concussion.
Katy lost 47-0, the team's worst defeat in more than a decade. The Tigers hadn't lost their first two games since 1984.
"We wanted to give the kids a chance to grow up, and they had to grow up in a hurry, grow up on the run," Joseph says. "But maybe we were asking our kids to do some things they weren't capable of doing."
In another four weeks, Katy was due to be on national television, playing a game at home against the Cypress Bay Lightning, a highly ranked Florida team that had demolished its first two opponents. No matter how bad Katy looked, ESPN was committed to airing the game, but the station had never guaranteed a prime-time slot and kickoff was changed to 2:30 in the afternoon.
"I think that hurts; when you play a night game you'll get more people out there," says Dave Stephenson, who runs Titus Sports Marketing. "We realized financially that that would cut into the gate...but you roll the dice when you do something like this."
Even worse, the team could end up getting whipped in front of a national audience, letting down Katy fans, with their devoted if sometimes oppressive allegiance.
A high school team from Miami traveled to the Dallas suburb of Southlake last year for what was ultimately an exhibition game. The Miami team won, ending Southlake's 49-game winning streak, but considering that more than 30,000 people attended, the real winner might have been Stephenson for arranging the whole thing.
"We had to shut off the ticket sales at halftime because we had maxed out," Stephenson says. "After that game, everyone was coming to us saying, 'Hey, can you do that for us?'"
Stephenson is a former president of Dave Campbell's Texas Football, a yearly magazine that previews every team in the state — professional, college and high school — and is often called the "bible of Texas football."