By Joshua Winata and Jon Schroeder
Killeen Daily Herald
COPPERAS COVE – Lori McCombs is the self-professed No. 1 fan in Copperas Cove, a title with fierce competition in football-crazed Bulldawg Country.
With the state championship only one win away, many Cove residents are vying for the position of top Dawg fan as the city prepares for today's game against the Aledo High School Bearcats in Waco.
But McCombs has the gear to prove her loyalty, from Bulldawg T-shirts, jackets, gloves and other apparel to cowbells, towels and giant clapping hands that she uses to cheer the team on from the stands.
"I always have my car loaded up with all my football gear," McCombs said. "If y'all go to the games and you see the crazy lady with the clapping hands up in the stands, that would be me."
Born and raised in Copperas Cove, McCombs graduated from Copperas Cove High School in 1988 and has followed the Dawgs her whole life. Now she has two children on their way to becoming Dawgs as well: a daughter cheerleading at S.C. Lee Junior High School and Matthew, 8, an aspiring football player himself.
Decked out in Bulldawg blue and gold Friday at Extraco Bank where she works as a teller, McCombs talked football with bank patrons and asked for their predictions for this weekend's game.
"I think they're going to win," Cove resident David Cottington told her.
"Think? Just think? They will win," McCombs said firmly with the same kind of optimism and confidence that all Dawg fans seem to exude.
Copperas Cove head coach Jack Welch said this week is special.
"We're playing football in December. That's almost unheard of," he said, adding that Cove does a good job supporting its high school students, both on and off the football field.
He said it's "hard to say" what kind of game the fans will see Saturday. Aledo's defense has held teams to an average of 12.2 points per game, but Cove's offense has put up some high numbers.
"Just two evenly matched teams going into battle," Welch said.
But the fans are generally more optimistic.
"Winning breeds winning," said Don Steele, who runs Mel's Burger Joint with his wife, Mel. He said the spirit of the team runs all the way through Cove, improving the city and adding excitement to its other sports programs – and the city is ready to roll in Waco now.
"How exciting can it get? You're four rounds deep in the playoffs," Steele said.
Since 2001, he's supported the Dawgs, and he's currently the facilities chairman of the Quarterback Club, which meets Friday mornings to discuss upcoming games.
"It was fired up," he said, talking about this week's meeting, which included standout running back Troy Vital. He set a rushing record at last week's playoff game against the McKinney Boyd Broncos.
Coach Welch "takes these 60-year-old men, and they're ready to suit up and give him one play," Steele says.
He lives in Burnet County but still finds a way to make it up to Cove for the early-morning meetings every week.
"Friday night, when they turn the lights off, it's time to play ball," Steele said. "We're going to take 10,000 people with us (to Waco)."
Joining the fans will be the Bulldawg victory bell, which has been making the rounds among local Cove businesses since the playoffs began. On Friday, it gleamed proudly in the parking lot by Schlotzsky's deli for all to see.
The bright yellow bell is emblazoned with blue vinyl lettering reading "Coach Welch Era" along with the names of "Fallen Foes," or all the teams the Dawgs have defeated this season.
Angel Valencia, a member of the Quarterback Club booster, brings the victory bell to all the games with his son Joseph, 24, and rings it when the Dawgs enter or exit the field and during a score.
Before the game tonight, Valencia will dine with fellow football fans, both from Cove and Aledo who met online, at Rudy's Bar-B-Q in Waco, where he will be showing off the bell and the Dawgs' victories.
"We just talk smack about who's got the better team," Valencia said. "Aledo fans are pretty cool fans. They know they've got a big game ahead of them. They've got a lot of respect for the Bulldawgs."
The Copperas Cove Chamber of Commerce is also raising the visibility of the football team by distributing free blue and gold ribbons donated by Wal-Mart, and businesses are encouraged to show their support by placing them in their stores and offices.
The Copperas Cove cheerleaders, who picked up some bows from the chamber Friday, already are working on decorations to put up around the city.
"This is just a start, a preview," Chamber President Marty Smith said. "If they win this week, we're just going to paint the town blue and gold."
Friday and Saturday will just be two more normal days for many businesses, but not for those that specialize in Bulldawgs.
BJ Callaway, who owns Sporty-B in Cove, said she's nervous about the game. She's preparing to make state playoff shirts, which she said will be available on Wednesday, assuming the Bulldawgs win in Waco this weekend.
Three-times-daily drawings for merchandise and tote bag giveaways with the purchase of a shirt or sweatshirt will round out her preparations, but she said the town hasn't entered Dawg-frenzy mode just yet.
"This town's going to be going crazy (with a win over Aledo on Saturday)," she says. "There's so much support in this town."
But some Cove residents say the town has always supported their hometown team; their new winning ways are just icing on the cake.
"There's been a little core group of us that have always gone (to every game)," said Katie Irick, a longtime Copperas Cove resident who's seen two children graduate from Copperas Cove High School in 1992 and 1995. "Having sat in the bleachers all those years ... it's good to see that all that hard work has paid off."
She said she's been to every game since the '70s, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.
"Cove has always been Dawg fans," Irick said, noting that she'd been there when the Bulldawgs weren't as good, before the arrival of coach Welch. "The bleachers were always full in Cove."