Inside world Texas High School barbecue State Championship
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Inside world Texas High School barbecue State Championship

Mar 08, 2023

ROUND ROCK, Texas -- Sean Hill grew up following his heart like so many Texans, dreaming of coaching a high school football team to a state championship. But a few years ago, with a decade of coaching experience in Rockwall, just outside of Dallas, he opted instead to follow his nose, giving it all up for the slow-and-low world of competitive barbecue.

"The practices smell better," said Hill, "and at the end of it, you get to eat what you work on all day."

Just three years after his change of careers, Hill coached a team to his elusive first state championship. His 205 Pitmasters Team Smoke, representing Rockwall Independent School District's Dr. Gene Burton College and Career Academy, was named grand champion out of 92 teams at the 2023 Texas High School BBQ State Championship on May 6.

Yes, you read that right: There are high school barbecue teams in Texas, and the meets (and meats) are treated with just as much passion and pride as other high school sports. This is the eighth year of the league put on by HS BBQ Inc., a nonprofit that has 116 teams registered between the Red River and the Rio Grande. Ninety-two of those teams qualified for this event by finishing in the top 10 at one of the 11 regional competitions across the state this season.

"It's gotten to where there were teams that were coming up all the way from the top of Texas, down south to the tip," Hill said. "I mean, El Paso and everywhere in between."

For Hill, 43, that trophy brings just as much pride as anything he could've won on a football field. In Texas, it all goes hand in hand, with many of the state's legends putting their money where their mouths are. Baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who started raising cattle in 1957 at 10 years old, owns a meat company, Goodstock, which sponsors the state championship and provides the meat so each team is on a level playing field. Earl Campbell Sausage has been producing the legendary running back's trademark hot links for 32 years.

The mystique around smoking meats is of such import that Texas Monthly, the "National Magazine of Texas," has a barbecue editor. It's a full-time job for Daniel Vaughn, who said the explosion in high school barbecue makes perfect sense in a state where tailgating in the parking lots before games rivals anything happening inside a stadium.

"Nothing's gonna overtake the importance of high school football in Texas," Vaughn said. "But what better second place could there be than competitive barbecue to capture the hearts and minds of Texas high school students?"

Hill said his decade coaching football is one of the secrets of his team's success. His barbecue team practices follow his old football format with periods for each point of emphasis, structured in the five categories each team is judged on at competitions.

"It's broken down into the categories of chicken, brisket, ribs, beans and dessert, like you'd break down offense and defense, linemen and receivers and backs," Hill said. "We go over seasonings, we work on trimming meats and fire management, getting their fire set up and getting stuff going."

Whatever Hill's teaching them, it's working. His 205 Pitmasters teams came in 10th and 25th in dessert, 19th and 29th in beans, then picked up the pace in the proteins, grabbing a fourth and ninth in chicken, a fifth in ribs and a second in brisket.

A competition cook for more than a decade who has a side barbecue business -- Texas Moonswiners -- to supplement his teaching income, it was validation for Hill that he chose the right path.

"I miss Friday night lights," he said. "But I'd never give up Saturday morning fires."

BEGINNING AT 4:30 A.M. sharp on that first Saturday in May, teams were allowed to start lighting those fires in the parking lot of Dell Diamond, home of the Triple-A Round Rock Express, named for Ryan, with his statue out front keeping watch.

Also keeping watch: Chuck Schoenfeld, himself a former competition barbecue cook with four decades of experience, riding around in his golf cart, working the crowd and detailing his vision for the future of the competition, which he hopes can grow to 150 teams. He launched High School BBQ Inc. in 2018 in hopes of giving students a way to compete while also injecting some youth into the competition circuit.

"Kids were always coming to the adult competitions with their parents and hanging out and wanting to cook, but you had to be 18 or older," he said. "I decided we needed to do something for the kids and build a youth cooking league."

The magic in barbecue comes in the smoke and time -- lower temperatures with longer cooks break down the meats. Students have to tend to their fires all day, making sure they stay lit but don't get too hot. These competitions follow strict rules, just like the pros do, including guidelines for appearance and plating, and it's not easy. Nothing may be premade, including desserts.

"Pinto beans will be started at the competition site from dry pinto beans," the rules state. "Each team must use only pinto beans and can cook with any additional ingredients they like as long as, once it goes into the turn-in cup, all ingredients are smaller than the diameter of a dime."

And turn-in times are crucial. Desserts are due at 9 a.m. and beans at 10:30. Chicken at noon, ribs at 1:30 and brisket at 3.

They're stressful days, beginning long before dawn. And for teams from smaller towns, the students are often involved in several other sports. Lipan, Texas, population 430, doesn't have a football team, but it is traditionally a basketball power, including both boys' and girls' teams winning state titles this year. Justin Bullock, the district's transportation director, is their barbecue coach. "Six of these kids got here about 2:30 a.m. after playing in the playoffs in baseball and softball," he said, noting they were back up an hour later to start working.

The small groups, long rides to competitions and the sheer amount of hours watching the fire and waiting lends itself to a bond not often found in other sports.

"These kids come together from all walks, multiple nationalities," said Sgt. Paul Beasley, an officer for the Mansfield ISD on the southern edge of Dallas-Fort Worth, who volunteers his time to coach the Phats BBQ team from Ben Barber Innovation Academy, a career and vocational school.

"They come together and they become friends."

Beasley, who has his own side gig, Fat Beez's BBQ, even organized a barbecue scrimmage for his squad this year, facing off against other local high schools and adult teams that cook competitively.

Schoenfeld said the circuit helps drill in lessons, especially since the adults cannot be within 20 feet of the students at the state championship, so they have to take on all the leadership roles themselves. The coaches coach 'em up, and let 'em cook.

"A lot of lessons they're learning, they don't realize," Schoenfield said. "Time management, teamwork, live-fire cooking."

Each team is allowed up to five members, and generally, each person is in charge of one thing, with a point person, for example, for brisket. But once the dessert is turned in, that student then turns to help the others tend fires and slice meats, or anything else they need.

Schools can have multiple teams qualify for state, as well. Hill said he had three students in his program in his first year in 2020. This year, he has four teams with 18 pitmasters.

One of the most unique elements of this event is that the sheer size of the state means there are regional styles that are completely different, both from the type of seasonings they use to the type of wood they use, which in Texas varies mostly between mesquite, oak, pecan or hickory, all of which impart different tastes. Judges might prefer one over the other, so sometimes it comes down to the luck of the draw for teams.

And unlike in other state tournaments, there are no size classifications. Hill's school draws from 18,000 students in Rockwall's school district. Last year's Grand Champion, McMullen County, has about 650-700 people in its entire county and 256 students in the district, according to McMullen's coach, Jason Jones, who also happens to be the superintendent. Located about 75 miles due south of San Antonio, it's the fourth-least-populated county in Texas.

"You have 1A schools competing against 6As," Jones said. "But you're really not competing against everybody else. You're competing against yourself here and the palates of the judges. It's up to them. Once we hit our marks, we can walk away from here saying, 'Hey, win or lose, we did what we came to do.'"

Each team gets a 20-by-20-foot spot, but there are no requirements for specific types of smokers, other than they have to use wood for cooking. Some of the wealthier schools have trailers. Some have standard backyard kettle grills. Some have enlisted other students for help.

"It's crazy, we have a $1,500 smoker built in our shop by our Ag team," Hill said. "But you look around and people got $6,500 Lang smokers. They've got the Weber Summits and those things are $1,800 apiece. It just goes to show you, if you know what you're doing with the cook, and you can follow your practice schedule, follow your cook schedule, it's easy. You can do it on anything."

Each entry is judged by appearance, taste and texture. Judges are handed a Styrofoam box with no identifying information, and are told not to compare each bite, only to rank them on their individual merit on a ranking of 1 to 10.

"Take one bite, I don't care what your bite is," said Marnie Schoenfeld, Chuck's wife, who oversaw the judging. "If you can get it in your mouth, that's your bite."

By late in the afternoon, hundreds of students, their parents and families filed into the seats inside the stadium and waited for the results.

With 92 teams, placing in the top 30 -- the number of winners that were announced in each category -- was a feat. Weary competitors who'd been working for 12 hours and still had long drives ahead of them eagerly awaited the results alongside parents, grandparents and teachers. One mom shed tears of joy for her son's 12th-place finish in beans. Everyone asked the Pirate Pitmasters dessert champ what he made (it was a barbecue joint classic, a no-bake banana pudding).

The bragging rights are nice. But this is a true vocational skill that can lead to a career in a hurry, or at least make someone the most popular person in their office.

"You put it on applications, because anybody in Texas -- regardless of whether you have the qualifications -- if they see you were on the high school barbecue team, they're gonna bring you in just to find out what that was all about," Hill said.

Beasley has already seen Hill's theory in action after his team was named the reserve champion, the second-place finisher.

"One of my kids already updated his résumé," Beasley said. "He got a job at a restaurant because he came in No. 2 in the state of Texas in barbecue."

THIS IS ONE school activity where family and friends don't mind sitting through practice.

"We live in Texas," said Jaylen Dinger, a student from Hudson High School in Lufkin. "Any family reunion or anything, barbecue is always gonna be needed."

The sheer amount of time required for cooking things like brisket means a lot of trial and error is done at home. Freshman Laci Cumpian of the Poteet High School Sizzling Strawberries said she was so upset she finished eighth in a regional competition that she went straight home and asked her parents to buy her a new rack of ribs to practice.

"My dad's buying the same smoker we use," she said. "So I'm going to be making ribs like every weekend."

Dinger's teammate Anna Wheeler from East Texas said she has been able to put her skills to use on family vacations.

"We went to Alaska last year during the summer and my family made me cook beans for them," she said. And why wouldn't they? Wheeler's beans took fifth in the state.

Beyond the ability to win friends and influence people with beans, the competition circuit can be incredibly valuable for students. Grand Champion teammates each get $1,500 scholarships from Texas HS BBQ Inc. and $5,000 each from the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Second place earns $1,000/$3,000. Regional competitions offer similar prizes, and students who participate for multiple years can enter college or culinary school with a substantial head start.

Most teams cater events on their campus, like the football banquet or community events that allow them to earn money to travel to competitions, buy meat or wood, or equipment. Beasley's team annually caters the police department luncheon and is allowed to use the school culinary department's on-campus bistro once a year as a barbecue restaurant.

"We opened at 11 [a.m.], and by 1:45 [p.m.], we were sold out," Beasley said. "To see kids cook like this? At this age? That's an incredible life skill."

Hill said he recently got approval to buy a new trophy case for his school, where the BBQ team's accomplishments will be prominently featured at the front of the school. Bullock said Lipan's trophies have also outgrown his office, and they're building a case that will go alongside the school's hoops' shrine.

The top three teams win Texas-sized belt buckles, and McMullen County team members, last year's champs, were sporting barbecue state championship rings featuring a spatula and tongs on the side.

For Vaughn, it's all befitting of a growing sport that provides a valuable service for Texans.

"Think of a high school sport: a football player, baseball player or whatnot," he said. "Chances are they're not going to do that professionally. There's a much greater chance that's going to happen from a barbecue standpoint. For me, having a bunch of teenagers who are ready to jump into working at a barbecue joint, I see that as a big plus. You're creating the next crop of pitmasters."