TRONA, CA Nov. 15, 2002 – In the Mojave Desert’s 25,000 square miles of sun-blasted earth there is a patch of sand 100 yards long that is looked after as dotingly as any garden, though nothing can ever grow there.
Residents of this mining town proudly call it the Pit, and for 60 years it has subjected the football teams that come to play Trona High to a kind of primal hazing. Tonight the Trona Tornadoes played a game in the Pit that made sad history. As Trona’s fortunes have fallen, the school’s enrollment has declined to 105 from 350 – not enough to put 11 players on the field consistently. Next season it will play in an eight-player league, but not before one final shot tonight against its arch rival, the Boron Bobcats.
Called the Borax Bowl, the game is a match-up of two mining towns that are world leaders in producing borax, a mineral used in glass, insulation and other products.
Trona versus Boron. Towns that sound like planets in a place that seems fittingly unearthly. Apart from the football field at Juneau High in Alaska, which is made of glacial silt, Trona may have the only all-dirt field left in the United States. Other teams do not like to play on it. Its hard-packed sand has less give than grass, and the players’ skin can be scraped raw. Then there is the heat. In Trona, site of the last-chance gas station before Death Valley on Highway 178, the temperature can hit 120 degrees. So teams play at night, and the air, as always, is tinged with sulfur from the mines.
“No athlete should be subjected to conditions found nowhere else in the country but Trona,” Stu Downes, a sportswriter for The Mammoth Times, wrote last year about Mammoth High’s troubles with Trona. “This is 2001, not ancient Rome. If they can’t grow grass, there’s always artificial turf.”
Trona’s coaches have heard complaints about home-field advantage from all quarters. The fact that Mammoth High is among the loudest especially galls them since Trona has to play in the snow and cold on Mammoth’s field at 8,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada. Then there is the sour-grapes factor. “We knocked Mammoth High out of the championship last year, and they were very upset,” said John Davis, superintendent of the Trona Unified School District.
Grass will not grow on the field because it is wet down daily with brackish water, trucked in because of a water shortage. It is sprayed and leveled every day, and the dirt is compacted and chalked on game day. Trona has never really considered artificial turf. It was seen as too expensive – and just not right, somehow. “We don’t want it; we like the sand,” said John Parks, the team’s coach. “There’s something about the mystique of the Pit.”
Even the principal at Boron High, Paul Kostopoulos, finds something inexplicable about the Pit. When he was the team’s football coach, he beat Trona only once on Trona’s home field, and that was Boron’s first victory in the Pit in 12 years. “When we won, I scooped up some of the sand and put it in a Coke bottle,” Mr. Kostopoulos said. “I still have it on my desk.”
If mining is the nervous system of Trona, population 2,000, football is its heart. There is no youth basketball, baseball or soccer here; only football. Some of the passion for the game was imported in the 1960’s and 70’s when the Oklahoma-based Kerr-McGee Corporation owned the mining operations and brought scores of football-loving Okies to the desert. “We’ve lived in Oklahoma, Texas, Bakersfield, towns large and small,” said Patty Jeffers, whose two sons played for Trona in the early 90’s. “And you won’t find people that care more about kids than this town. When my boys played, I drove 4,500 miles in one season.” In a blow to its ego, Trona had to forfeit four games this year because it could not field enough players. The school’s declining enrollment reflects cuts at the town’s mining plants, now owned by IMC Chemicals. About 700 people work at them, down from 1,700 in the early 1980’s.
The Boron team has also forfeited some games this year for the same reason as Trona, but it has more underclassman and so far faces no threat of falling out of 11-player competition. The teams’ differing futures may have added steam to tonight’s final game, but the rivalry did not seem to need help. “This town stinks,” Kalen Hanson, 17, of Boron, said before the game, referring to the sulfurous odor created by Trona’s saline method of mining. Boron’s mines use a dry-digging method, which is odorless. “It reeks here.”
Trona players had their own point to prove. “Trona has a different breed of kids,” said Cody Corrion, 17. “We’re tougher. This field makes us tougher. Who knows if it was the Pit advantage yet again, but in the last four minutes of a bruising battle, Trona scored a touchdown and won 6-0. “There’s nothing that feels better,” Mr. Davis said, “than beating Boron.”