PAONIA — Four years ago this fall, this town’s football team won a championship in a park.
At the end of a cold game — temperature at kickoff was 35 degrees — the scoreboard showed that Paonia beat Centauri 32-24 for the school’s first title in the sport since 1959.
Thing is, that scoreboard didn’t show a thing on the morning of the game. Overnight snow had shorted it out. Paonia was set to host a state title game with no scoreboard in Town Park, a throwback event site with stands on one side that used to double as the baseball team’s home field.
“They said to go find Lorna,” said Paonia athletic director Tim Esgar.
That’d be Lorna Hughes, a secretary at the school who was taking tickets. Her husband, Bill, works for the local electric company.
Bill found a solution: foil from someone’s lunchbox. He used it as a temporary fuse, and the scoreboard roared to life. It proudly displayed the final score later that afternoon.
A year later, Paonia won a second-straight Class 1A championship at Town Park. And a year after that, they were runner-up.
This past spring, the baseball team and the girls track team won championships in 2A. They were the school’s 21st and 22nd state titles. Since 2010, the school has won 13 championships, including five consecutive by the girls track team.
Players, coaches, administrators and parents from Paonia are often asked what their secret is. There must be something in the water, people joke.
No. It’s just water.
Paonia has a pretty good-sized weight room which overlooks an auxiliary gymnasium. In that weight room, the school painted a phrase in black lettering. It reads, “This is our secret.” Hard work. Dedication.
But that’s only part of it.
See, this is a town that has grown accustomed to winning, and to championships. But it’s also a town that’s infused into those titles. It’s intertwined with everything the school does.
Without its community — capable of, and willing to fix a broken scoreboard after a quick phone call — Paonia High School would not be as successful as it is.
“Without them, there is no us,” said McKenna Palmer, a senior who participates in volleyball, basketball and track.
That is their secret.
There’s a grit here. It’s a measuring stick. You will work hard because everyone before you has worked hard. They say it’s evident even in the elementary school.
“It is an attitude and an expectation,” said Lynda Campbell, a retired schoolteacher who knows just about everyone, and is something of a school grandmother.
Was it here in 1902, when the town was incorporated? Or before that, when it was inhabited by the Utes?
The mentality of Paonia was undoubtedly molded by the people that have lived here over the years. They were farmers, ranchers, coal miners. This area, in the North Fork River Valley about an hour-and-a-half east of Grand Junction, has long been known for its produce. (In 1893, the fruit “won several top awards” at the Chicago World’s Fair.)
Now, they are still farmers, still ranchers, and some still are coal miners, though not as many. The area used to have three coal mines, and 11 trains a day going in and out of town. Two of those mines have closed.
But the town isn’t dying. New industries are moving in. 1,425 people lived in Paonia in 2016, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That was the first increase in population the town had seen since 2009.
“The community hasn’t closed. It’s adapted,” said Randal Palmer, the principal at Paonia High School. “They keep plugging along until they figure it out. There’s a will to want to stay in this valley.”
“Our local economy, interestingly, is probably as good as its been,” said Stan Park, the CEO of First Colorado National Bank in Paonia who has had three kids graduate from the high school.
Through it all, the mentality — that grit — has remained. So of course that has spilled over into the schools.
“These kids see these people working hard every day,” Park said. “They see people in their towns, whether they’re working in the coal mines or down in the shops, or wherever, that’s part of the culture.”
“Not that that doesn’t exist in other communities,” Park continued. “I’ve lived in farming communities where I thought people have incredible work ethic. But if you look at those schools, those are the schools — like Akron, Wray and places like that out in these farming communities — there’s a work ethic. There’s a consistent thing there that when they see that kind of work ethic in people in their community, it extends to their kids.”
Most of the 155 students in Paonia High School’s hallways have a summer job. Some of them have a job during the school year, too, meaning they’re up and working before the day starts.
“I mean, literally, they’re milking a cow,” said Palmer, the principal.
The hard work is done in an environment where excellence is not the exception. In both 2014-15 and 2015-16, Paonia was ranked among America’s top 500 high schools by Newsweek Magazine. The school added an AP program six years ago.
“Every person in my class, they want to go on and do something in post-secondary education to do something that’s really important to them with their lives,” said McKenna Palmer, the senior athlete. “If they set their mind on going somewhere in college, they’re darn well going to succeed in high school. They just have that drive to do whatever they possibly can to make a good life for themselves.”
“The hardwork on the football field turns into hard work in the classroom,” said Jaden Miller, a senior who plays football, baseball, and wrestles.
Said Scott Rienks, the girls basketball coach who also is a football and track assistant: “You talk about sports, but in both my kids’ classes, there was that competitiveness for the grades, too.”
It’s part of their secret.
“There’s no formula or anything to it,” McKenna Palmer said. “It’s just hard work, and just the grit to want to be better than we are.”
Like most small towns, Paonia’s community is a close one. And that’s probably why the community is so supportive of the high school: The high school is the community, and the community is the high school.
So Friday nights at Town Park, or some random Tuesday in the gym, are packed.
“Everyone comes out, whether you have a kid or not,” said Ellie Roberts, a teacher at the middle school who owns an orchard.
“They just want to see us succeed,” said McKenna Palmer.
“Friday night lights, it lives here,” Campbell said. “It really does.”
This past spring, an elderly couple in Crawford was listening to the state baseball semifinals on the radio. They heard Paonia was leading 4-0, and made the five-hour drive to Pueblo for the championship game, which is held the same day. They arrived in the third inning, and watched the Eagles celebrate their title an hour or so later.
Mrs. Campbell, the retired school teacher, is so interconnected with the school that she literally does the football team’s laundry. Brent McRae, the former football coach who resigned this past spring, stopped her after a game a few years ago and said that a player had told him she had a clothesline.
“I said, ‘Yeah, what about it?'” Campbell recalled as she laughed. “But that goes on all the time. And it started when my kids were in school.”
So McRae would drop off the uniforms after the game each week, and stop by on Monday to pick them up. Campbell was happy to do it.
The school’s booster club — which, let’s be honest, are just members of surrounding community — started a tradition recently where they feed opposing teams and fans after games because restaurants in town are closed afterward.
“This little old man from Meeker came through, and he said, ‘I don’t come to watch the games anymore. I come for the meal,'” Campbell said.
It’s part of the expectation in Paonia: Everyone is here to help.
But there’s also selfless quality the is evident within the school.
Teachers routinely use their lunchtime to work with students. Coaches more often than not are working in three seasons — head coach in the fall, assistant in the winter and spring. That kind of thing.
The athletes themselves are mostly multisport athletes in the truest sense: They participate in one sport per season, and sometimes they participate in multiple sports per season.
“I really don’t like wrestling that much,” said Jaden Miller. “I could be playing fall baseball, but the team really needs me. We all feel like we have to come out. We all play sports that we really don’t enjoy that much, but we’ve all got to come out and do it. There’s not enough kids here.”
Coaches encourage their players to participate in multiple sports. There was even a recent case of a wrestler who also played basketball in the winter season. The coaches worked it out.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s our sport or not,” said Scott Rienks, the three-sport coach who actually started coaching when he was in high school. “That’s a huge thing. We all support each other. We want everybody to succeed.
“In a small school,” he added of multisport athletes, “to be able to survive, that’s just what happens.”
Said Tim Esgar, the athletic director: “It’s about the school, not about the sport. We’re all using the same kids. The school is first.”
The expectation of excellence bleeds from the classroom to everything else Paonia does.
Last year, a pair of basketball shoes were stolen from an opposing team’s locker. No one knows who took them. (Paonia did buy the player another pair of shoes.) But the next day, unprompted, the student body president stood up in the middle of the lunchroom.
“You better knock that off,” he told every student there. “That’s not who we are. We’re not going to go down this road.”
The message was clear.
It’s equally as clear when freshmen get their first taste of one of Paonia High School.
“For the last 15 years or so, when the kids come into this school, the expectation is already there,” Lynda Campbell said. “It’s not if we’re going to state, it’s where are we going to place? And the expectation is not, ‘If I get a scholarship,’ it’s, ‘What kind will I get?’ and, ‘Where do I want to go?'”
New arrivals adapt to the culture within the walls. It was there long before they got there, and will be there long after they leave.
“You just fit in with these kids here, because they’re so — they’re just good,” said McKenna Palmer, who moved from Texas in middle school. “They’re just good kids.”
“It’s just a different atmosphere up here,” said Jaden Miller, who also moved in during middle school. “You’ll be driving down the highway here, and if you just wave at somebody, everybody will wave back. You’ll walk into Hightower, the diner, and you’ll know everybody there. And if you don’t, they’re always friendly.”
So, yes, this small school, nestled in a valley next to a river, has won 22 championships. And it probably will win quite a few more in the near future.
No, it’s not all about titles. Or the academic scholarships. But they are without question the result of the expectation of hard work, of grit, that is rooted deep into Paonia’s culture.
And they are also the result of this community, where, within two phone calls, you can find yourself drowning in heavy machinery that’s just waiting for a project.
“Someone will show up with a backhoe, someone will show up with a bulldozer, show up with fork lift, a bobcat,” said Randal Palmer. “It’s really — it’s two phone calls. You say, ‘Hey, we’re going to meet here.'”
And they say, “O.K.”