ROSE HILL – Rose Hill’s high school football team will hit the road for Salina at 7 a.m. today, and it won’t be sneaking out of town.
The team buses will be escorted by police and fire vehicles; fans will line the road; and balloons – about 250 of them – will be released into the morning sky.
The Rockets will be launched on their journey toward a state football championship by a town that has never won one.
“They’re crying for a championship, and have been for a long, long time,” said Jack Carr, a school board member in Rose Hill and a sports historian who graduated from Rose Hill in 1955, before the high school even had a football team.
Rose Hill, 12-1, will play 12-1 Eudora for the Class 4A state championship at 1 p.m. today in Salina, and if you didn’t know that, a quick drive around the business community would give you a clue. The high school spirit squad painted the windows of the stores all over town with messages such as, “Take State,” “Go Big Red” and “Beat Eudora.”
Rose Hill has won a handful of team championships in other sports, but the only other time the school got this close in football was in 2004 when Rose Hill lost the title 31-13 to Topeka Hayden in Pittsburg.
And football is one engine that drives community spirit in small towns.
“As a former athlete and a community member now, this is very huge deal for the city of Rose Hill,” said Charlie Knight, a member of the school’s booster club, whose son, Tyler, is a senior starting linebacker, receiver and kicker for the Rockets.
“Through the years, football’s the thing you talk about on Saturday morning,” he said. “That holds true in Rose Hill.”
“This is a really a sports-oriented town,” said Cindy Pauly, who owns Quigley’s Sports Bar and Grill with her husband, Teddy. They had two daughters who attended the high school, including one who played basketball there, and Cindy Pauly drove a school bus to the 2004 championship game in Pittsburg.
“Especially with the way things are,” said Cathy Smith, a waitress at Quigley’s who also works at the middle school and has a son who played on the 2004 team. “Nobody is sure of their job, nobody’s sure of anything with the economy. They still support the kids.”
Pauly said the sports bar and other businesses in town have survived through the lean times.
“Everybody supports everybody,” she said.
But a run to state by the high school football team sure helps in times like these. And that’s all the talk in town right now, Smith said.
“Everybody wants to know if you’re going to the football game, what time you’re leaving, and what’s the weather going to do,” she said.
“I think it’s awesome we’re going to state and I’ve lived here 21 years,.” said Rikki Johnston, a 2008 Rose Hill graduate who is the scan coordinator at the Apple Market grocery store in town.
“It’s something to talk about other than the normal gossip that this town has. Everyone should be on the same page for once,” she said.
Optimism is higher in town for today’s game than it was in 2004. This year’s Rocket team won 12 games in a row, many by huge margins, after an opening loss to Buhler. The 2004 team was only 5-4 when the playoffs started, and faced an undefeated Topeka Hayden team in the championship game.
Much of Rose Hill’s population will be in Salina today. When the Rockets pounded Ulysses 56-14 on the road in the playoffs, 400 or 500 fans made the four-and-a-half hour trip to Ulysses on a pep bus, two charters buses and host of other vehicles.
“This town will pretty much go berserk if we could win that title,” Carr said.