But when Green turns around, he finds a Katy defensive lineman ready to snap him like a dried palm branch. Green tries a quick juke. Then he grips the ball with both hands as he's introduced to the fine artificial turf at Rhodes Stadium. The result of the sack is an eight-yard loss.

Most fans at the game wear Katy red, though Cypress Bay is not without supporters. Many players have friends and relatives in the stands. Austin Gamble's mother and brother made the trip. Green's entire family — Grandma and all — flew out for the game. Principal Neely sits near the end zone, kicked back with his shoes off, shouting encouragement to his team on every other play.

When Katy gets the ball, it looks like men playing boys. They've got players bigger than anyone Cypress Bay has faced. The Katy offense marches down the field with ease.

Quarterback Zach Green faced constant pressure from Katy defenders.
Daniel Kramer
Quarterback Zach Green faced constant pressure from Katy defenders.


Click on the picture to view photo outtakes.

Click here for a version of this story told from Houstonís perspective by New Timesí sister paper, the Houston Press.

Tough Lightning defense, however, keeps the score close for most of the first half. Katy leads 7-6 when Tiger fullback Chris Roberson breaks a long touchdown run just before halftime. Lightning defenders bounce off Roberson, and he literally drags Eddie Cabrera across the goal line with him.

Back in Florida, a group of fans and boosters has gathered to watch the game at Uncle Al's Café in Sunrise. Cabrera's girlfriend puts her hands over her eyes when she sees Katy's second touchdown.

Janet Vasquez, whose son Matt has two receptions in the first half, is nervous at halftime. She sits at a table with School Board member Phyllis Hope and a few other moms. She grips a pile of napkins and speaks with tears in the corners of her eyes.

"It's amazing to see your baby just like a pro, getting his bags ready, getting his clothes pressed," she says. "I can't even explain all the feelings I have right now watching this."

Hope passes out her business cards and blue, white, and gold (the school colors) Hawaiian leis to students and parents. "In the second half, Florida's gonna take over!" she exclaims.

Both defenses hold early in the second half. But then, early in the fourth quarter, Katy quarterback Parker Ray connects on a deep route to wide receiver Taylor Brandt that catches the Cypress Bay secondary off guard. Brandt sprints to the end zone. The play leaves the Lightning fans deflated.

Any hopes of a Cypress Bay comeback are dashed when a Green pass is picked off by a darting Katy defensive back and returned to the Lightning one yard line.

Cypress Bay's speed is no match for the size and strength of the Texas players. Katy holds Cypress Bay scoreless in the second half. By the end, the usually dominant Cypress Bay offense has managed just 82 yards rushing. The final score: Katy 31, Cypress Bay 6.

"It was hell on Earth," Leslie Tripp says later. "I couldn't wait to get out of that God-forsaken state and get back home to Florida."

The plane ride home the next day was quiet. On the Monday after the game, players said practice was more focused, more intense. The team had been humbled, "punched in the mouth," as Coach Guandolo would say.

Tripp isn't at practice, though. He's getting ready for the viewing. "The shock of this whole week still hasn't sunk in," he says. His hair is out of the rubber-band spikes he wore for the game and back to a wavy blond mop.

Principal Neely took Tripp out for breakfast when the team got back. Had the team beaten Katy, they would have returned to a pep rally and parties across Weston. Instead, Tripp had a quiet meal with the principal.

"Leslie is such a kind, loving young man," Neely says. "He realizes what's important in life, and a better friend you couldn't ask for."

The loss doesn't seem to affect the team. A week after the Katy game, Cypress Bay beats Miramar — an undefeated district rival — 41-40, foiling a two-point conversion attempt with six seconds left in the game.

Tripp says the team is back on track. And he's being recruited by colleges. Some have excellent marine science programs; Tripp says he's interested in exploring the oceans eventually; he has a 130-gallon reef tank in his bedroom.

The Tuesday after the Katy trip, Tripp's family holds a funeral service for his mother. The entire Cypress Bay football team attends. For some, it was only the second time they'd worn a tie.

Paul Knight of the Houston Press contributed to the reporting of this article.

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