A troubled town’s grit expectations

The Trona High School 8-man football squad practices before the home opener on the school's dirt field. Football in the dirt is a tradition at Trona and a point of pride.
The Trona High School 8-man football squad practices before the home opener on the school’s dirt field. Football in the dirt is a tradition at Trona and a point of pride.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Eight hours before game time and Mark Goins takes the field. For 30 autumns, the Trona High School groundskeeper has carefully tended a football field unlike any other, a fragile foothold on pride in this withering desert mining town.

The sign above the lightly used press box welcomes people to Griffith Field. But no one calls it that. This is the Pit, home of the Trona Tornadoes, where the Friday night lights illuminate games played on an unforgiving bed of sand, grit and rocks the size of a baby’s fist.

Goins wouldn’t know bluegrass from Bermuda. He grooms dirt.

He starts by spraying the field with 4,000 gallons of water from an old tanker truck with rusty seams. He lets the field dry to the consistency of a beach at low tide and plows it loose with a pair of iron bars chained to the back of a Ford pickup. Then he flattens the rubble with a clanging steel roller, circling the field like a Zamboni resurfacing a hockey rink.

“It’s like a recipe. If it’s 110 degrees, it can get hard on you real fast. . . . If you have puddles, it’ll stick to the roller,” said Goins, 49, who played football at Trona High before becoming its maintenance man. “You can mess it up pretty easily.”

Finally, Goins stripes the gridiron with anhydrous sodium sulfate, which is used to make detergents. Opposing coaches hate the stuff because it stings players’ eyes, but the cost can’t be beat: It comes free courtesy of Searles Valley Minerals, the mining operation that has determined Trona’s fate for a century.

Two white smiley faces in the end zones are Goins’ pièce de résistance.

The Pit is ready for tonight’s game. It’s smooth as plywood. And about as hard.

High school football binds together small towns across the nation. But in Trona, an isolated gas and beef jerky stop on the road to Death Valley National Park, football at the Pit is a profound symbol of the town’s perseverance in the face of economic calamity.

Changes in ownership and technological advances led to steep job cuts at the mine beginning in the 1980s. It decimated Trona. A place that once had a department store, a weekly newspaper, charity balls and commuter flights to Los Angeles is now littered with empty storefronts and abandoned homes torched by arsonists.

As Trona’s population plunged from more than 6,000 in the 1970s to about 1,500 today, so did its school enrollment. The junior varsity football team was eliminated for lack of bodies. When the school board voted a decade ago to abandon 11-man football for the 8-man game, angry locals packed their next meeting and forced a reversal.

“The town stood up and said, ‘No, we’re not there yet,’ ” said John Foster, the Tornadoes coach and a third-generation Tronan.

Soon enough, they were. After Trona forfeited four games in the 2002 season because it couldn’t field enough players, it was 8-man football or nothing. The school joined the Hi-Lo League, which includes teams from the small towns along the Eastern Sierra from Lone Pine to Lee Vining.

“They finally realized that you can’t play 11-man football with starting freshmen playing against 18-year-old seniors,” Foster said. “They’re boys going up against men.”

Football in the dirt is a Trona tradition. Migrants from Oklahoma and Texas who came to work the mines imported their love of the sport. Trona High School opened in 1940 and the Tornadoes -- named for the dust storms that skip through the valley -- played at the Pit in a 6-man league. By 1947, the boom town graduated to an 11-man league and the Trona Argonaut chronicled the team’s exploits in breathless prose:

Moving with the precision and power of a General Sherman tank, the Trona Tornadoes shifted into high gear last Saturday and ran all over the visiting Anaheim football team. . . .

The gallant but outmanned Trona Tornadoes opened their grid season Saturday by giving a strong Tehachapi eleven a real run for their money. . . .

They came, they saw, and they conquered. . . .

From the 1950s through the 1970s, the Quarterback Club met for lunch on Wednesdays during the season to discuss football. They raised money for equipment, college scholarships and improvements to the Pit, including the bleachers, press box and light towers -- a beacon in the desert visible for 10 miles.

“Football is almost like a religion here,” said Kent Schmidt, Trona’s sole first-grade teacher and its high school athletic director. “Kids who grow up here dream of playing in the Pit. On Thanksgiving Day, you’ll see guys playing full-on tackle football out there.”

Grass is tough to grow in the blistering heat and saline soil of this prehistoric lake bed. Blowing desert sand would make artificial turf expensive to maintain -- not that anyone has ever seriously proposed it. A patch of test grass planted by coaches in 1966 was mysteriously doused with kerosene and set ablaze.

The Pit is to Trona what Fenway Park is to Boston, a tradition not to be messed with.

Besides, there’s no money in Trona for a new football stadium. The Quarterback Club disappeared with the town’s fortunes and Foster’s annual equipment budget is $500, which barely pays for the tape and chin straps. He digs into his own pocket to buy cleats, which get chewed up quickly in the Pit.

“For anything big, I have to put in a purchase request and hope the board approves it,” Foster said. This year, he asked for $2,400 for 10 new helmets. “Their first reaction was, ‘How much?’ ” The team hasn’t had new uniforms in years and they work out on secondhand weight machines picked up cheap a decade ago.

Foster, 44, is a civilian ordnance technician at nearby China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. When he’s not blowing stuff up, the onetime Tornado standout is likely to be at the Pit where he has coached for 18 years, the last four as its $3,000-a-year head coach.

Foster is solidly built, with short-cropped hair, sunburned skin and a slight Southern accent. He calls his players goofballs and rides them about keeping their grades up even after the season. He’s an amiable guy, except on game day, when it looks as if he’d like nothing more than to run into the Pit and bulldog somebody to the ground.

With only 85 students at Trona High, recruiting is uncomplicated.

“I’ll take anybody who wants to play,” Foster said.

This season’s roster of 20 includes six boys who have never played organized football. Among them is Steven West, a shy sophomore with red hair and freckles who at 5-foot-10 and 260 pounds fills out his jersey like a shrink-wrapped marshmallow.

“He’s a big teddy bear,” Foster said of his still-learning lineman. “I keep telling him that when you get out on the field, these are not your friends. You got to hit them.”

Steven, who said he has long been self-conscious about his weight, never considered football because he worried he’d get hurt. Of particular concern was going down at the Pit, which he heard was like belly-flopping on concrete.

But then his father proposed moving his family to Utah where he works during the week for a mining company. Steven, who didn’t want to leave his friends in Trona, suddenly got interested in football. His father, a former high school player, said as long as the teenager played he could stay in Trona.

The move has had other benefits, Steven said. He’s shed 20 pounds in daily practices and feels more self-confident.

“I fell down and it wasn’t that bad,” No. 79 said after his first game at the Pit. “It wasn’t what I was expecting. I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was.”

Growing up in Trona is tough. Aside from dirt biking and a youth football program, there’s not much to do. The closest movie theater and shopping center is half an hour away in Ridgecrest. Money is tight; nearly three-quarters of Trona’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school.

“Half of those kids are welfare babies,” Foster said of his players. “They don’t get much given to them. They earn everything. . . . These are rough-and-tumble kids.”

For most of his 17 years, junior Mykal McBath has bounced between his divorced parents and members of an extended family, a circuit that has taken him from Trona to Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Fresno and back again.

“My dad, for some reason, can’t stay out of trouble,” Mykal said. “My mom knows I don’t like it living in the city. I’ve been shot at. Everyone’s on drugs. I don’t want to live that life. . . . Out here you don’t have to worry about gangs or what color clothes you’re wearing.”

He left his mother in Fresno after his freshman year and moved back to Trona on his own. He encamped at a cousin’s house, enrolled in school and earned money doing yard work.

Foster’s son Troy, a senior and the Tornadoes starting quarterback, persuaded Mykal to join the team. Then Troy told a family friend about him.

“When I heard about the circumstances he was living in I said, ‘No, no, that’s not OK,’ ” said Billie Rummer, 37, a former cheerleader at Trona High who is the school’s cheerleading coach. “When Troy told me Mykal doesn’t always get to eat, I knew I had to do something.”

Rummer, a married mother of three, invited Mykal to have dinner with her family.

“And he pretty much never left,” she said.

A versatile player with explosive speed, Mykal has been a force this year on both offense and defense for the Tornadoes, backing up at quarterback when he’s not rushing the ball, intercepting passes and returning kicks for touchdowns.

More important, Mykal’s belly is full, his grades have improved, and he talks about going to college.

“He’s a sweet kid. I love him so much,” Rummer said. “Before this, I didn’t know it was possible to have such an impact on a person’s life. To have a complete stranger move in with you and then to feel about him like he’s my own biological child. . . . It’s been an amazing experience.”

Night advances into the valley like an inky fog. Switches are thrown, a burst of blazing white light envelops the Pit and the outside world disappears.

The visiting Lee Vining Tigers drove four hours to get here for the 0-2 Tornadoes’ first home game. They walk out to size up the field, kicking at it with their cleats.

“You get cut up when you play here,” Lee Vining Coach Dan LaRue said. “Your game plan goes out the window. At the beginning of the game, you can run up the middle. But later, you need to run to the sides because the middle is all chewed up. It’s hard to make cuts in the dirt. You try to plant your cleats and you go skidding.”

Balls bounce erratically. As the field softens, it’s like running with ankle weights. The dirt gets in your eyes, up your nose and down your pants.

“It’s Trona,” LaRue said, shrugging. “It’s their home field advantage.”

What happens next is reminiscent of when the visiting Christians faced off against the Lions at home. The Tornadoes string together a highlight reel on offense and defense and crush the Tigers 48-0. The game is stopped at halftime under the league’s “mercy” rule.

The Pit looks as if it were strafed with a machine gun. The line markers have been ground back into the earth from which they came.

Foster and LaRue meet in the muck and shake hands. “This field. . . , " LaRue said, shaking his head.

The Tigers walk off with heads hung while the Tornadoes whoop it up. Steven West, who assisted in two tackles, runs over to the bleachers where his father offers words of encouragement. Billie Rummer reaches up and cradles Mykal McBath’s sweaty face in her palms.

The bleachers empty and groundskeeper Mark Goins shuts off the lights in Trona.

Not for good. They’re not there yet.