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FOOTBALL: Sabine Pass athletes understand district’s reason for ending season early

SABINE PASS — When Friday’s 50-0 loss at Hull-Daisetta concluded, it hit Sabine Pass head coach Jason Thibodeaux.

The Sharks were down to only 12 players after two were sent to the hospital, one with a “stinger” and another with a hand injury.

“It really started to sink in on the seriousness of our low numbers and our injuries already sustained for the year,” Thibodeaux said. “It was time to make a decision.”

The following Monday, Thibodeaux, who’s also the athletic director, met with Sabine Pass ISD officials about what to do with the remainder of the season with basically only one healthy reserve on the roster. The decision was made then to cancel the remaining six games. (Sabine Pass was going into its second of three open dates after a scheduling conflict with Pasadena First Baptist Christian Academy — the Sharks’ first opponent — forced Galveston O’Connell to pull out of the Sharks’ schedule.)

“Our main concern is their safety,” Thibodeaux said. “Their safety was in jeopardy the last two games we had. For us to put them in harm’s way would be an injustice, … we decided to not continue football because we here at the school are obligated to their parents to give them a safe learning environment, whether it’s in the classroom or the competition field. And that’s what we did.”

Sabine Pass began preseason camp on Aug. 6 with 15 players and had 16 going into the First Baptist game, but dealt with injuries and cramping during that 19-14 loss.

Sabine Pass High School principal Andrew Bates said Monday’s meeting was a regular daily gathering among him, district Superintendent Kristi Heid, Thibodeaux and other school and district officials. Thibodeaux released a district news release Wednesday to publicly announce the cancelation of the final six games. Bates also served as the public address announcer during home games.

“It’s a mixture of emotions because we love all of our activities,” said Bates, his school proudly displaying University Interscholastic League state championship banners from six of the past seven years. “We try to make sure that’s an asset and that in no way holds our students back. So, we try to give as many opportunities. Obviously, football is a big part of that because it offers so many things for our kids to learn from. Anytime you have to look at a program and no longer make it available to them, it’s hard to find any way to where you don’t have to do that because we’re looking the other way. We want to expand opportunities, so we don’t ever want to go the other way. Based on all the facts, based on student safety, it just didn’t seem there was any other responsible choice for us to make.”

Senior season

Sabine Pass captain Shane Foreman, an offensive and defensive lineman, and offensive lineman, kicker and punter Cesar Ortiz understood the decision, even while realizing they won’t take another snap in high school.

“My very first reaction to it, it was very difficult to process at first,” Foreman said, “but understanding that for the safety of all of us, not having enough numbers, we can’t depend on everyone for the little numbers we have.”

Said Ortiz: “Obviously it hurt me a lot because I played since seventh grade, but they did it because of our safety. Obviously, we have to understand that. Being a senior, it really hurts not playing another year, but seeing these eighth-graders and ninth-graders come up and attempt to play football again, … if we don’t have enough players we’re not going to have another team.”

The lack of numbers stymied a football program hoping to build a tradition of success after qualifying for the UIL 2A Division II playoffs just two years ago during a 6-5 season. That was Sabine Pass’ first winning season since 1983 and first playoff campaign since 2011.

2A Division II is the smallest sub-classification for 11-man football under the UIL, Texas’ governing body for public high school athletics based at the University of Texas at Austin. Teams in 1A play six-man football, and Thibodeaux said Sabine Pass cannot opt into a 1A district because of its 2A-sized enrollment (138 students in grades 9-12 as of the fall 2017 semester).

The Sharks struggled to gain player interest in football while enduring a 17-game losing streak that was snapped during the second week of the 2016 campaign, and expectations for a bigger team soared with the winning record. Even before Tropical Storm Harvey slammed Sabine Pass and other areas along the Texas Gulf Coast the following August, the Sharks began preseason camp that year with 10 players, only to gain enough players coming off summer vacations just before the scheduled opening date.

Sabine Pass managed to recover just enough to play a six-game season, winning the first game and losing the next five.

“We tried to go out to the underclassmen, the freshmen and sophomores, and tell them, ‘It’s not as bad as you think,’” Foreman said. “’Yes, it takes a lot of work, especially with two-a-days and all of that, but get through it, and it’s fun because you can call the teammates a family.’”

Heid said being a “limited community” with few places to live has made trying to attract new players tough. Sabine Pass was annexed into Port Arthur in 1978.

“We’re cognizant of it all times and are working on ways to bring students to Sabine Pass,” she said.

Sabine Pass, meanwhile, operates as an open-enrollment school district, meaning any child who resides outside the district’s boundary lines may enroll.


Community impact

Heid, a former Sabine Pass High principal, proudly boasts of being a Shark from her kindergarten days.

“You don’t get no more Shark than that,” she said. “To cancel that season broke my heart. I know the community is disappointed. I know there are mixed emotions going on, but the only thing the school could do was safe for the children, and that’s where the decision came from. That’s all. It’s as simple as that.

“… To be fair to a district to pull out when we did was the right thing to do. But the decision was made utmost for the children.”

At a gas station just down the street from the school, two customers were talking to each other with the clerk communicating with a bottling distributor. One of the customers, a Sabine Pass resident, said he had heard of the cancelation of the remaining games, while it was news to the others in the store. Neither offered comment.

Bates said homecoming royalty activities, which were scheduled for Oct. 26 with Colmesneil visiting, will be moved to a basketball date to be announced.

“That’s something we’ve done before,” Bates said. “With storms, we’ve had to adjust the season. We just transfer that to basketball and do the same thing, make sure our traditions get upheld, just a little bit later in the year.”


Future plans

With 23 players participating in Sabine Pass’ middle school football program, Thibodeaux said he’ll examine the interest among high school athletes in determining whether or how to build a schedule for the 2019 season.

“Our immediate plan is to finish out this school year, have our cheerleaders cheering, have our drum line program, having homecoming and getting these kids a great year here at Sabine Pass,” he said. “That’ s our No. 1 priority right now. Toward the end of the school year, we’ll look at our numbers and see how many will be in our athletic department, how many want to participate in football and go from there.”

I.C. Murrell: 721-2435. Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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