Even during COVID-19, Bay City, El Campo play on

While both were experienced high school football coaches, it still came as a surprise to Bob Gillis and Warren Trahan years ago to see how much the annual El Campo-Bay City game meant to fans of both schools.

“Warren had just started at Bay City and I had just come to El Campo in 1992, and we were in the middle of the old Bay City field when the gates opened,” Gillis said. “All of a sudden, there were there 6,000 people in the stands an hour before the game began or the lights were turned on.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my gosh. They do take this game seriously.’”

Even in the midst of a historic pandemic, they still do.

The El Campo Ricebirds and Bay City Blackcats on Friday staged the 117th edition of a series that began in 1911 and has continued without interruption since 1920 as the most-played rivalry in Texas high school football history.

El Campo continued its recent dominance, winning 42-8 for its 15th win over Bay City in the last 16 years. The Ricebirds, who lead the series 64-44-9, are 6-1 and unbeaten in three district games, ranked No. 9 in the state. Bay City is 5-3 and 1-2 in District 12-4A Division I.

Running backs Johntre Owens, who ran for 229 yards and three scores, and Rueben Owens, who added 142 yards and a score, fueled the offense, and the defense held Bay City scoreless until the fourth quarter.

“This game is always something special,” El Campo coach Wayne Condra said. “When these players come back for senior reunions, this is the game they’re going to talk about.

“In these times when you see games being canceled across the state because of the virus, you cherish the opportunity to have days like this.”

The annual game between El Campo and Bay City, located 35 miles apart on opposite sides of the Colorado River southwest of Houston, is a year-round topic of conversation in both towns, as Gillis, who retired after the 2014 season, learned during his early days in El Campo.

“Bay City beat us in some close games my first two years, and in 1994 we tied,” he said. “A lady at church told me, ‘You know, coach, at some point you’re going to need to beat Bay City.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I understand that.’”

El Campo’s recent dominance reflects the early days of the series. The Ricebirds won 17 of the first 19 meetings with two ties, and Bay City scored only touchdowns in those games combined before its first victory, 13-6 in 1924.

Bay City, though, has had its moments. The Blackcats won state or division titles in 2000 and in 1983, when Hart Lee Dykes and five other all-state players led one of the best teams in Class 4A history, and have played in three other finals. Bay City Hilliard, which closed in 1967, twice won titles in the Prairie View Interscholastic League.

El Campo won regional titles in 1945-47, the top rung for smaller schools during that decade, but has never won a state or division championship under the University Interscholastic League conference system that began in 1951. The Ricebirds lost championship games in 1967 and 2012.

Standout players include El Campo’s Glenn Lippman, a member of the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame, future NFL player Heath Sherman of El Campo and Dykes and Olympic gold medalist Joe DeLoach of Bay City. Coaches Gillis, Jack Hays and Buzzy Kieth at El Campo and Don Haley and Ron Mills at Bay City are in the Texas High School Coaches Association’s Hall of Honor.

“I remember the intense but respectful rivalry,” Gillis said. “Bay City or El Campo may have been more talented, but it always was a tight, tough game.”

In a series of more than a hundred games, there are more memorable moments than fans or coaches can recall offhand.

“One year, we had 11 inches of rain in two hours at Bay City, and when we got on the field the water was filled up to the edge and on part of the field,” Mills said. “I wanted to postpone, but they wanted to play. It was a muddy, sloppy ballgame, but we won it big.

“El Campo and Bay City is like brothers competing against each other. The people know each other so well.”

Another memorable game was in 1987, when El Campo won 27-24 on a last-play, 58-yard touchdown pass from Billy Bartosh to Sammy Tolden.

Behind the microphone that night for El Campo radio station KULP was Rich Lord, who grew up in New York, attended college in Ohio and moved to Texas to fulfill his dream of being a play-by-play announcer.

Lord is best known for his long career on Houston sports radio, but listeners also relish his breathless call of the winning score, which can be heard on YouTube, punctuated by his increasingly fervent howls of “Touchdown! Touchdown! El Campo wins!”

“It didn’t matter whether the teams were good or bad,” Lord said. “The fans would show up, and half the town would be there. It was right up there with the most exciting events I’ve attended, covered or broadcast.”

For fans of both schools, Friday’s game provided a respite in what has been a trying year.

Wharton County, which has about 41,000 residents and includes the towns of Wharton and East Bernard in addition to El Campo, has reported 1,415 COVID-19 cases and 56 deaths. Its rate of 339.99 cases per 10,000 residents exceeds the statewide county average of 303.86.

Matagorda County, which has about 36,000 residents and includes Palacios and Van Vleck in addition to Bay City, has reported 1,089 cases and 52 deaths with a rate of 297.53 cases per 10,000 residents.

El Campo also had two brushes with the roiling emotions associated with the social justice protests that followed the deaths of George Floyd and other Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement.

Five Ricebirds players knelt during the playing of the national anthem at El Campo’s Sept. 19 homecoming game, and some fans were miffed when the team, in accordance with a decision by the UIL district executive committee, stayed in its locker room during the playing of the anthem at another game and had not yet arrived on the sidelines at another game when the song was performed earlier than scheduled.

But El Campo superintendent Bob Callaghan, a 40-year school administrator who came to El Campo in July, said dealing with COVID-19 has been by far the more difficult challenge.

“COVID-19 has had a more dramatic impact on high school sports than anything I’ve experienced in my career,” Callaghan said. “The 50 percent capacity limitation has had a tremendous impact on the noise, enthusiasm and interest of people trying to attend games.”

The superintendent said that while some fans have cited safety reasons in electing not to attend games, others have chosen not to attend so that players’ families can have access to the limited number of tickets available.

Bay City superintendent Marshall Scott reports similar challenges but, like Callaghan, said football is a necessity these days.

“For some of our students, extracurricular activities are the driving forces that keep them engaged academically,” he said. “It’s not just a luxury for us to play football. It’s an incentive. It was an incentive for me many years ago, and it is for students today.”

Players have felt the strain as well. Bay City quarterback Avery Smith, whose six older brothers also played for the Blackcats, said the year “is just crazy — everything about it, the school year, the sports, starting off with virtual classes and then coming back to school.”

Receiver-linebacker Nathan Willis, a second-generation El Campo player, said the season has required new levels of discipline in terms of safety protocols and teamwork in standing by teammates who wished to express their feelings on social matters during the anthem.

“They have been told whatever their choice is, it’s their right, and they will still be loved, no matter what they choose,” Willis said. “I believe that, and I will stand by them.”

While the big game is done, the season will resume. Four of six teams in District 12-4A Division I will make the overstuffed UIL playoff field, so both teams have incentives.

El Campo has made the playoffs during four or five seasons under Condra, who was an assistant to Gillis before becoming head coach in 2015. Bay City has struggled for more than a decade, making the playoffs only four times since 2005 with two 0-10 seasons and a 0-9 record in 2019.

The recent downturn led to the return of Warren Trahan, who coached at Bay City from 1992-99, as athletic director and Robert Jones, who played for the Blackcats from 1996-99, as head coach. Jones promptly hired two former Bay City athletes, Anthony Smith and Da’Marcus Griggs, as assistants.

“We understand this town and what it needs to get things going,” Jones said. “With both of us having good records this year, this rivalry has that buzz again, and the kids know the importance of it and what it means to both communities.”

Chad Lee, who works for a plastics company in Bay city and played with Jones in high school, junior college and at Texas A&M-Kingsville, said his friend has “brought back the Blackcat spirit” to Bay City.

“The kids can look back to that tradition and respect it, and the play on the field this year has reflected that this year.” Lee said.

Interest also was reflected in ticket sales for Friday’s game. Bay City, as the visiting team, received about 400 of the 2,700 tickets available, and they were sold out within an hour.

“Everybody was fighting tooth and nail for them,” Lee said. “It was like a Willy Wonka thing. Everybody wanted the gold ticket.”

Eugene “Pee Wee” Wier, 81, was on hand as well, as he has been for most El Campo games since playing for the Ricebirds in the mid-1950s.

Weir thinks this can be a golden age for El Campo football. Mostly, though, he’s glad there’s a football season in 2020, even though he has given up going to road games this year because of health concerns.

“I’ve said a few prayers,” he said. “We have a young team, and I think we will be good for the next three years. I think Bay City will be the same.”

david.barron@chron.com

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