Many of the town's prairie-hardened residents are packed into the home side of the bleachers. The cattlemen still wear their cowboy hats, the farmers their fertilizer shirts. The kids are in letter jackets. Their faces all say the same thing. This cannot be happening, not again. And yet, there are the girls, in those familiar blue and yellow uniforms, not getting back in transition, not contesting shots, not playing smart defense and, most important, not winning. For the second year in a row, the Nazareth High School Swiftettes are in danger of losing their own invitational tournament.
Looking at the crowd, you'd think the wells went dry or the corn didn't rise. Standing behind the bench, one of the most vocal moms, Rosie Kleman, yells, "Work, everybody, work!"
Kleman's daughter, Holly, is the best player on the court, even at 75 percent. Two years ago, Holly was MVP of the state championship team. Now, with a herniated disc in her back, each step sends a bolt of pain down her legs. Still, she fights, bouncing blond ponytail belying her toughness, moving around the court, looking down in disgust at her hands, which no longer hold the basketball. Healthy, there's not a girl on the schedule who could take the ball from her. But tonight
Soon, mercifully, the first half is over. As the Swifettes walk into the locker room, somehow down just six, coach Amy Huseman looks disgusted. She has the most pressure-packed job in town. It's a burden she alone understands, one she takes very seriously. She carries a COURAGE bracelet she found in the street and keeps religious medals hanging from her belt, working every angle.
Huseman faces her team, searching for the right words.
"That's just plumb lazy!" she screams at the players.
The room goes silent. Huseman has their attention.
She wants to tell them to play tough, to play smart, to have heart, but how can she make them understand? Finally, it comes to her.
"Play like Swiftettes!"
On about a dozen nights a year, though, something wild and exciting breaks the stillness. Follow the sounds to the rocking high school gymnasium and begin to understand. The heart of this village doesn't really beat unless the Swiftettes are playing and winning a basketball game.
The good people of Nazareth have been doing this for the past three decades: dropping everything to watch the most dominant girl's high school dynasty in the nation. There have been years when the team didn't lose a game. This is not one of those years. They didn't win state last season and are another bad half away from losing their own tournament again.
Rosie Kleman sits in the stands and waits for the third quarter to begin. She runs the Department of Agriculture's Farm Services office in nearby Dimmitt and says she has turned down job offers in bigger, more exciting places over the years. Her roots are here, buried in this ground. Some people are trapped in little towns. Rosie, with her big hair and bigger smile, is here because no other place feels like home. To leave now would make all the living and dying done by her people meaningless. Out there might be easier, but here, she is part of something. So she stays, sitting in the bleachers, waiting for the game to resume.
The team is at the top of a food chain that supports and sustains everything: families, school, town, future. Holly is a third generation Swiftette, and her mother was part of the class that went to the state finals for the first time in school history. Basketball is in her blood. As quiet as she can appear off the court, she is as expressive on it, expecting the success spawned by her mother's team.
"When I was in high school," Rosie says, "I had no idea there was a state tournament. We were this little town and you didn't even really know that there was such a thing. All of a sudden you get to be juniors and we're going to state and we're like, 'Where are we going?'"
Most of the players had never been to Austin. They worked on farms. They prayed the rosary on the bus. During close games, the girls on the bench pulled the rosary beads from their socks and started again.
In 1977, they went back to Austin and won a state championship. They won the next year. Then the year after that. Six in a row before falling short in 1983. Of course, they won the next two in a row after that, going 69-0. During one of the worst farming crises since the Dust Bowl, when prices were falling and inflation was rising, the town celebrated.
Sometimes, the coaches look at the far wall, count the banners and feel humbled. There are 17 girls basketball state championships up there, more than any other public school in the nation. People expect titles. They start kids young; the halftime show is often the Naz Stars, a collection of little girls and boys who perform the same ball-handling drills as the varsity. Mothers take pictures of their toddler daughters in front of the locker room doors. By the time those toddlers grow into point guards, they know the mystique. They know the pregame songs and chants. "I've been a manager since third grade," Holly Kleman says, "so I learned them."The winning has a dark side. The parents have run off their share of coaches, one of them less than a decade ago in a dramatic Hoosiers-style school board meeting during the season. Two coaches won a state title in their first year and never coached the Swiftettes again.
"There were times that if you didn't win, you found something else to do," assistant coach Brenda Schulte says. "You feel the pressure."
Rival schools complain there is recruiting because students are leaving nearby districts for Nazareth. Really, families seem drawn to the school's success and repelled by economic downturns in their own towns. Nazareth is an anomaly. Its population actually grew in the last census, while the two closest communities, Hart and Dimmitt, were shrinking.
All the new faces have changed the town. It's not totally German Catholic. Everyone isn't related to the first settlers. It's about to change the basketball team, too. This season, for likely the last time, all six seniors are from historically Nazareth families.
"Most of them were related to one another," Schulte says. "That was part of the success. The challenge now is to take people from diverse backgrounds, from different areas and try to create that unity."
As the town evolves, the coaches and fans struggle to keep the Swiftettes' dynasty from disappearing. There's so much at stake, much more than just a successful basketball tradition.
It hasn't always been.
In 1979, just as the Swiftettes' success began, 33 people graduated from high school, maybe half went to college and only about eight remained in town.
Today, many return in time for their children to start school. Before that, virtually 100 percent went college. An astonishing 80 percent graduate from college, school officials estimate. That's higher than the national high school graduation rate. Attendance is near 100 percent. The average ACT score is almost four points higher than the national average, higher than the average of any state in the country.
The transformation is not just academic. Inspired by the girls, Nazareth now has four boy's basketball state titles, including last year's. They have a long string of tennis and cross country state championships.
This year, the football team went further into the playoffs than ever before, beating schools twice its size. Nazareth is one of the smallest schools in the state to still play 11-man football. Long ago, the school became eligible to switch to six-man, but the town doesn't see itself that way.
The school is the center of all secular activity. There are paw-prints all over the streets (a swift is a kind of small fox). On the street leading to the big church, they've painted "WE BELIEVE" in Nazareth High blue and yellow. Hay bales all over town were decorated to support the football team's run through the playoffs.
"One team, one dream," they read.
Parents want to be involved; it's easy to attract support for a winner. Before the basketball tournament began, a group of moms gathered in the community hall to quadruple the chili recipe. Twice.
Each year, there is an annual fundraising steak dinner and auction. Teachers make out a wish list for the booster club and, with the proceeds, the town supplements the money provided by the state of Texas. This year, the elementary school teachers wanted high-end Saxon math materials, a teaching method that has been shown to raise standardized test scores. Thanks to the steak dinner, they'll have them.
"If it wasn't for town and community support like that," superintendent Keith Langfitt says, "this school couldn't make it."
Last year, the school ran a deficit budget. With virtually no tax base to build any reserves, that simply cannot happen. Run in the red several years in a row, and they'll have to close this building, tradition be damned. When schools consolidate, towns often shrivel up and die.
"It terrifies me," Langfitt says. "School finance flat out terrifies me. How many bad years could we have? I'd say two right now. We don't have the fund balance to live off of."
If it weren't for the Swiftettes and the culture of greatness they helped spawn, the school might have gone long ago. There are no local industries. Some districts have oil. Others have wind farms, or natural gas. Some have all three. Nazareth has 356 people with pride. That keeps them going, but that's it.
Langfitt has been over the books time and again, figuring he'd find some extravagance to cut. Nothing. For a while he considered losing the $1,500 for cell phones, but since the town finally got a tower in November, the staff actually uses them. He's considering installing a windmill to cancel out the electric bill.
"The scary thing is, there's nothing you can do," he says. "I've looked and looked and looked to see why we've run the deficit to try and cut that out, and there's not anything."
Well, take that back. He did find one extravagance. They have three copiers.
"We only need one," he says, "but that shouldn't be enough to make or break a system."
They called their new home Nazareth.
A century later, many of those original families are still here. Walk through the cemetery next to the church. The surnames don't change, just the dates. Look at the basketball roster. This year, like most years, it's filled with the old Nazareth clans. They are the tough, the ones who tied on bandannas to keep from suffocating during the worst of the dust storms."Do you know the word exigency?" says the Rev. Ken Keller, the local priest. "They have an ability to do whatever is necessary. In Biblical terms, it's the extra mile. Whether it's the sports. Whether it's keeping the place alive and going. It's all the same survivability."
Others didn't make it. There are remnants of them, as well, graves of a different sort. The two dozen ghost dairies and all the abandoned homesteads. The rusted equipment parked at odd angles, as if the farmer couldn't take it one second longer. The International Super 98 electric fence charger left behind in a garage. The countless decaying well pipes. "There's a thousand of these in Castro County," says Darryl Birkenfeld, a Nazareth native who does consulting work for struggling towns in the Plains states. "We've got all these unplugged holes all over the Texas Panhandle."
Different things drove them out. Some didn't make it to the 1920s, unable to live in underground dugouts. Some fled during the Depression, when the town barely sustained itself. For much of America, the Depression is as far away as the Revolutionary War. Not here. Here, a local businessman named Walter Kern still has the books of his family's grocery store, still knows who paid and who didn't. "They all know who they are," he says, pointing up on the shelf. "Some of those names are better left off because they're still here."
The Dust Bowl took more. Farmers broke soil that never should have been farmed in the first place, pouring water to stubborn land. Without the thin cover of grass, the earth literally blew away. It decimated the Plains and almost destroyed Nazareth, knocking the population down to about 50, according to the newspaper up in Amarillo.
Time took the rest, the land winning again and again, a few more each decade. The frontier isn't for everyone. Survival isn't a given. It's a daily decision, fueled by hope.
All the studies done about rural America point out a new and frightening trend: Hope is disappearing from the small, forgotten places. That's when a town really dies. Not when the last storefront is boarded up, or when the last house caves in on itself. It's when hope packs up and leaves. Everything after is a long denouement.
Thirty years ago, after all it had been through, Nazareth needed a refill of hope. The young people were leaving, barely looking in the rearview mirror on the way out of town.
Enter the Swiftettes.
"It brought about a change," Darryl Birkenfeld says. "People started to drive and do things. It didn't happen the same way before. My parents didn't go to our games. But they had to go for their grandchildren's."
Little girls here start thinking of success early in life. One mother, Leslie Standlee, moved to the district a few years ago. It wasn't too long before her kindergarten-aged daughter began talking about winning championships with her classmates. She hadn't even really started school yet, but she'd started dreaming. She believed she could accomplish great things, and she believed she could accomplish them in Nazareth.
Then there's the biggest problem of all, especially for farmers: water. It is essential to growing cotton and corn and for raising milk cows. And they're almost out.
Three years ago, the town stopped running the well beneath the water tower every day during the summer, settling for every third day. For a decade, people haven't been able to irrigate east of town. Birkenfeld needed to drill 325 feet to get enough water to supply his new house. He'd need 30 times more gallons per minute to grow the corn that used to surround his land.
More and more, people with new homes are drilling dry wells. "We had one 12 miles north and 2 miles west," says Kern, who installs and maintains windmills. "They drilled three holes before they finally got water at 520 feet."
People tried to warn them. Two or so years ago, Birkenfeld held a water symposium, brought in experts from all over the country to talk about possible solutions. Kern shakes his head and grumbles.
"Three farmers came," he says.
Out toward Hart, where many of the new faces in Nazareth are from, the economy is dependent on cotton and corn. Drive south on 168. The land is studded with the center-pivot irrigation rigs, sucking up the water like a drunk guzzles screw-cap wine.
Parked in his Chevy truck in a cotton field, Steve Albracht takes a break. His daughter's on the Naz team. They moved to the district a few years back, one of those transfers. He's a good farmer, and he's proud of it, maybe prouder than he is of his new Corvette.
The last few years running, he's gotten more bushels of corn per acre than anyone else in the nation. How? Easy. Albracht laughs.
"Shove the water to it," he says.
He knows they're in trouble.
"You're looking at a five-year span if we keep pumping water like we've been doing," he says. "It's just a mater of time."
Scientists are working on dry-land corn. Man, that would save a lot of folks. Supposedly, it's eight years away. That's heartbreaking math. Eight years before the corn is ready. Five years of water.
Albracts's got faith. The farmers work hard. They do well. They deserve something in return. That's how America is supposed to work, right? Pioneers settle on frontier land, carve out a town, send crops to their cities and sons to their wars. In return they get to exist forever, right? He believes so, pulling his gearshift into drive, heading off down the turn-row.
"A community full of pride always succeeds," he says.
They believe, even when all reason says not to. Even when the water's almost gone, when the dairies are ghosts and the corn fields revert to native grass. They believe in the test stations at the wind farm spinning outside of town, in the local committee envisioning Nazareth in 2020. They believe because it has gotten them through.
"All you see here," he told them, "the day will come when you will not see another stone upon a stone."
Until that day arrives, they rage against the dying of the light. If you wonder why they care so much, why they don't just accept their fate like so many other places, make the short walk out of the church to the big open lot next to it, full of green grass that dances in the wind. With the last of the water, they irrigate it, making sure it's perfect. It has to be. It's where they plan on burying future generations.
"The cemetery is big enough for the next 200 years," Birkenfeld says. "This is a sacred place. When you die here, 400 people walk you out of that church. They walk you down that sidewalk, and they plant you. They walk you out, and the bell rings. I think that's what brings people back."
The history of the town is in the cemetery, and if the dynasty fails, and if the school closes, and if the town blows away, then it was all for nothing. Or worse, it never happened. Walk the graves, see the dates and the names, and you'll understand.
This is why Rosie Kleman sometimes gets quiet during games, like she's whispering to a child. "Come on, girl," she'll say. "Use your legs. You're all right. You're all right."
It's why Holly plays through her pain, why she owns a book titled "Treat Your Back Without Surgery." "I have everything," Rosie says. "Every wives' tale. You sleep with a bar of Dove soap in your bed. We tried it out. It didn't work."
It all comes back to that cemetery, where the past is buried, where Shane Matthew Kleman is buried.
Five years ago, Doyle and Rosie were at a basketball tournament with Holly. Back in Nazareth, her brother, Shane, was riding in a pickup truck with some friends out on the dirt roads.
Where highways 614 and 527 intersect, the driver lost control. Shane was thrown out. One of the other passengers was his cousin. They airlifted Shane to Lubbock. His cousin was taken to wait on an ambulance at the baseball field, where much of the town had gathered. He kept asking the paramedics: "How's Shane?"
Soon, everyone knew. Shane Kleman was pronounced dead at 9:04 p.m., five days shy of his driver's license. The family had made it to the hospital by then. Holly lost it. She only lost it one other time, on the way home from the cemetery, weeping uncontrollably.
"Holly?" Rosie asked. "What's wrong?"
"Mama," she said, "Shane doesn't know anybody in heaven."
Holly got it together and, for the most part, has kept it together. Oh, she thinks about Shane all the time. When Holly writes poems for class, she talks about an angel in heaven. She really believes that, and watching her play, you just might start to believe it, too. Little girls ask for No. 12 now, to be like Holly.
Her game has gotten the attention of some colleges, but she's not interested. They send her letters and ask for schedules. Her mom says she doesn't reply.
"I hope she doesn't, but I think she feels like she has to be here for us," Rosie says, her eyes getting wet. "I just think she's scared we can't get through it. I just wonder how much pressure, how much she's kept inside and whether it will ever affect her."
In school, where she's the likely class salutatorian, Holly has written that her dream is to go to a nearby college, learn how to be a physical therapist, then come back to raise a family. She's tied to this land, like her mother, like so many others.
It's where her brother is buried, where her parents will be buried. And when she dies, if all of this still exists, the bell will ring and the town will carry her down the sidewalk to that field of green.
"Play like Swiftettes!"
The players gather together. They're a tough group. Holly's got her back pain. Senior Candace Birkenfeld just returned from a knee injury. One regular, Jennifer Acker, wears an insulin pump inside her jersey. But they never quit, and the old Nazareth magic is still alive. They had a huge win the other night, taking down a cocky big city school four or five times their size with an overtime buzzer-beater.
They need another one tonight, down six, packed gym, facing elimination in the semifinals of their own tournament.
"One two three SWIFTETTES!"
They inch back. When Steve Albracht's daughter, Kelcy, makes a 3-pointer, the Whitharral lead is two. Whitharral answers to make it five. The crowd is going nuts. Since the football team is in Midland for a playoff game and the cheerleaders are there, too, someone in street clothes stands up and starts to chant "Two bits, four bits "
Whitharral hits another basket, making the lead five. Nazareth closes it to three. Time's running out, just six minutes left. That can only mean one thing: Hollytime.
She finds a bit of daylight, gets a look at the rim, sets up just behind the arc. Rosie Kleman stands up in the bleachers and yells, "Use your legs, Holly. Use your legs!"
They're burning. But when it counts, Holly aims and shoots, the same motion as always. She gets her legs into it. As one of the managers said earlier, "Holly's hurting really, really bad. Her freshman and sophomore year she was unstoppable."
The crowd follows the ball, up then back down again, into the basket. Tie game. Next possession, Holly hits a two to take the lead.
It goes back and forth, the clock at less than three minutes, then less than two. Holly grabs a rebound, lays it in, putting the Swiftettes up again. Who knew a little Texas town could make so much noise?
The clock moves faster. Thirty seconds left. Holly steals the ball, passes ahead to Lacey Acker, who's fouled. Now up by six, with Holly guarding Witharral's best player, game over. They'll play Krum in the final, the school that beat them a year ago.
Laughter fills the locker room afterward. Holly throws a shoe at Lacey, and the kids are popping towels at each other. Holly leads the claps, which quickly fill up the small room and spill out into the hall. Right by the door, on the bulletin board, she and another senior have written a message: "Losing is not an option."
Finally, the clock says it's time. Schulte grabs two clipboards, a legal pad and a Diet Dr Pepper. Huseman grabs the video camera.
"We just have to show up," she says. "Maybe we will."In the gym, seems like the entire town is packed into the bleachers. Cowboys put their hats over their hearts for the national anthem.
The music's blaring, the crowd's shaking the building and the game begins. Holly drains a three. Then a second. Then a third. Her legs are killing her, and she might not make it through the season, but tonight, they're going to win. Tonight, Rosie stands and screams: "Finally!"
Holly scores their first 11 points, then hits another three, then another.
"Holy crap!" says one Swiftette from the bench.
The other team calls the press off. Holly's shot them out of their game. The Swiftettes are up 14 at halftime as they file into the locker room, surrounded by all their season's goals taped up on the wall: Bond. Undefeated. Win district. Win state. Win Nazareth tournament.
They're almost there. The winner of the tournament gets a basketball with "first place" written on it. All season, they've had the "second place" ball on display in the locker room, as a reminder.
"Keep going," Huseman says. "Let's go. One two three Swiftettes."
The second half is more of the Holly Show. She hits 3 after 3, only grabbing her legs once, and just for a moment, finishing with 34. It's a career high. When she finally comes out of the game, the crowd gives her a standing ovation. Rosie beams.
"We got the right ball," Huseman tells the giddy team afterward. "Now we turn around and play a tough, tough game on Tuesday."
The players gather in a circle once more. They close their eyes, they hold hands and, together, they pray. After the final "Amen," the girls head out into the cold night. Parents crowd around Rosie and Doyle, keeping the moment alive a little longer.
Here, before you leave town with the rest of those headlights trailing into the November night, there's something you should see. Drive down the dirt roads, down the one they call 529, past the abandoned dairies and homes, past dry wells and forgotten tractors, out to a stand of trees. Kochia grows tall and prickly.
Before the brush returned, a house stood here. The old T.P. McCormick homestead, where man first decided that this piece of Castro County might have a future. It's where the priest came, where the first Mass was conducted, where the first land office was established, where the first mail was delivered. In 1900, it was the only thing for miles. This is where the dream began.
Now it's just the weeds and the Siberian elms and the wind. There are ragged holes in the well shack, the pipe rusted and dry. They hauled most of the big house away three decades ago, just as the Swiftettes were starting their run. Only a room or two is left, falling plaster the only clue human beings ever occupied this space.
A few nails manage to hold together a few boards, but it's just a matter of time. Soon, the land will wipe it clean, as if it never existed at all.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.