Temperatures over 100 degrees didn't deter Union County High School fans from packing the stadium for a pep rally Thursday commemorating not only the beginning of football season but the consolidation of Jonesville and Lockhart high schools with Union High School.
The excitement about the pep rally was dulled earlier this week when vandals spray painted "The Hell with J & L" on the wall of the home-side stands and used rock salt to imprint the letters J and L with a line struck through them on the field. But on Thursday, many said the act only served to push the communities together.
Capt. Greg Pickens with Union Public Safety said officers were in place to ensure the event was safe, fun and orderly, but that he didn't anticipate any problems.
"This is the same as it would be for Friday night football games," Pickens said. "I think the students and community are excited, and tonight will whet everyone's appetites for next Friday night's game. This shows a great coming-together effort."
Students and members of the athletic teams milled around the stands, filling goody bags and eating hot dogs as they waited for their time in the spotlight.
Carra Austin, 14, is a ninth-grader at UCHS and a member of the volleyball team.
"There was some tension at first, but now that everyone has gotten to know everybody, we're doing OK," Carra said. "I made some new friends, and I'm excited about tonight."
"I'm excited to get the school year started and make Lockhart and Jonesville feel welcome," said Ivy Vinson, a junior and Yellow Jacket cheerleader. "With the new people on the cheer team, it's less groups of people and more everyone binding together. Every single person that's new, I've made friends with."
Ivy's attitude was echoed by the other event participants, all of whom were eager to put tension and strained emotions in the past. People snatched up free T-shirts bearing an image of Union County with the words "Unite" and "Ignite" and representation of each school's colors blending together.
Chris Woodson, manager of WBCU radio, helped design the shirt and said it is intended to encourage unity and the blending of the three schools into one.
"We thought the time was right for us all to unite and support the kids in their education," Woodson said. "Tonight is a night to support and welcome students from Jonesville and Lockhart."
By 5:30, more than 1,200 of the 1,500 shirts had been distributed.
"This is a great crowd, especially with this heat," Woodson said. "It's almost as much as a Friday night, and we're just starting out."
Geryle Smallwood of Lockhart dropped by the event with his son, Clint, 9, to show support for the community effort.
"I think it's good for the community and what they need," Smallwood said. "It's a done deal, and now people need to let it go and step forward. The shirt was a great idea."
Smallwood said his wife graduated from Lockhart High School and struggled with the fact that their son would not be able to do so.
"She thinks it's good in the long run, but it takes awhile to change what you had set your mind to," Lockhart said. "I see a lot of people trying to do a lot to unite, and everyone should try."
Jennie Allen, 7, wore her support with the image of the Yellow Jacket painted on her face.
"My cousins are cheerleaders, and I want to be a Yellow Jacket," Jennie said. "I was mad people did that to the field."
Her mother, Julie Allen of Union, said they have cousins from Lockhart who are playing football.
"We hope it strengthens the team," Allen said.
Angela Suber of Jonesville is confident the merger will strengthen the football team. Her son, Antwan Curenton, 15, maintained his status as quarterback for the junior varsity team when the schools consolidated.
"I think it's wonderful, no ifs, ands or buts," Suber said. "I graduated from Union in 1991, and I think this will make all the programs stronger."
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