HARRISBURG — On game day, Harrisburg has a town dress code: Wear Bulldog red.
Bulldog mania consumes this town of 182 people, 18 miles north of Columbia. Outside the high school, the scrolling marquee flashes “Big Game Tonight.” At the stop sign in town, another sign is attached “Honk for the Dawgs.” Near the high school, three signs are stuck in the ground on the road leading towards the gym, “Admission: $4, Pregame meal: $10, Winning girls and boys district championships: Priceless.” At Palmer’s Market, the older crowd gathers at 6 a.m. to drink coffee and discuss Bulldogs basketball.
“Everyone recognizes us walking around town,” senior Taylor Perrigo said. “We breed basketball players here.”
At 2 p.m. last Saturday, high school students began congregating in the Harrisburg High School parking lot. A small grill smoked on the back of a pickup truck while students chugged cans of Mountain Dew. The district basketball championship doubleheader starts in four hours.
Junior guard Frank Wanner focused on painting Cameron Reasons’ face red and white while listening to the Missouri-Baylor basketball game on the radio.
“This is the sport here,” Wanner said. “We’re not good at anything else.”
Later that night, Wanner played in the boys’ game, helping No. 3 Harrisburg beat No. 8 Sturgeon while Reasons yelled in the student section.
Off Route J, on Sexton Street, Lonnie Ray’s Barbecue is in a small brick building. It’s one of the few buildings on the street. A picture history of Harrisburg hangs on the walls. It includespictures from when the school caught on fire, pictures from the Halloween contest in 1969 and a picture of the 1924 undefeated Harrisburg team. The only color photo is of the 2006 boys basketball team that won the state championship.
Sammy Stidham sat under a photo and squinted to see himself in the picture. Stidham and his wife, Dee, now live in Columbia, but both grew up in Harrisburg. They drove in to eat at Lonnie Ray’s, then both sat behind the Bulldogs bench at the game.
Owner Mike Whiteley brought out slabs of ribs dripping with barbecue sauce and sandwiches of brisket piled high. When people paid their bills, Whiteley didn’t have to ask if they’re going to the game. He told them to enjoy the game.
“I started smoking (meat) at 5:30 this morning,” Whiteley said. “It’s going to be a good night.”
In the high school hallway towards the gym, the lockers are decorated with the Bulldogs logo, which has sharp teeth, a spiked collar and the tongue hanging out. Just as Michael Jordan with his tongue out has come to be a universal symbol of dominance, the Harrisburg Bulldog with its tongue hanging out has come to represent an overpowering team to opponents.
“Everywhere we go, we’re kind of like the Yankees,” said Doug McClure, who graduated in 1986. “We like it that way.”
With 15 minutes to go before the girls’ game, almost the entire gym was filled with red-clad supporters. Some of the students showed off their mohawk haircuts, some dyed red.
“I’d say most of the people here tonight have been to every game all season,” Steve Lynn, class of 1979, said.
After all, it is March, and this is when the games get serious. The boys dominated another regular season schedule, finishing 22-3. Anything but a trip to the state semifinals in Columbia would be considered a disappointment, after winning the state championship two years ago and finishing third last season.
“There’s maybe more pressure on us because the entire town is here,” coach Steve Combs said. “But it feels great having the support no matter if we win or lose.”
When the girls basketball team won its first district championship since 2002 last Saturday night, three members of the fifth-grade basketball team leaped and exchanged high fives with the team. The girls had watched the game from the second level standing the entire time and cheering just as much as some of the parents.
“Look at them, they’re so excited,” Todd Lowrey, class of 1981, said. “This is what Harrisburg is about.”
Sitting at mid-court, Lowrey, McClure and Lynn dissect the game, give the referees nicknames like “hairspray” and analyze every move made by the team. Lowrey, the former boyss coach, talks about the Xs and Os of the game observing how Harrisburg’s shots aren’t going down like they usually do. Maybe they’re a little tight tonight. Lynn and Lowrey played on the 1981 team that made the state semifinals. While the other guys examine the game, Don Worthley is the cheerleader. He’s the only one of the four men who didn’t graduate from Harrisburg. But he gets into the game pumping both arms and fists in the air when Perrigo swishes a 3-pointer that extends the Bulldogs’ lead.
“I told you they’d be up by 20 in the fourth,” Worthley said.
After the games, younger boys and girls wanting autographs swarm the team.
“It’s cool giving autographs,” freshman Tyler Hudlow said. “We know they look up to us.”
After Harrisburg wins the boys game 69-53, the town spills out onto the court. People talk about the win and the road trip to Hannibal for the sectional games.
The team gathers around the district championship trophy for a team photo. Then the town gathers around, joining the picture.
The picture isn’t just a team photo. It’s a town photo.