CARY, N.C. — The Devil Pups from Camp Lejeune - the sons of marines and sailors, traveling to games in a bus painted with sword-toting troops in full regalia - are an athletic powerhouse among the small-town teams of rural North Carolina.
The Jordan-Matthews High School Jets of Siler City turn heads, too: Mexican boys who tumbled out of white vans on Saturday, arriving at the small-school Class 1-A championship to face the Devil Pups. Their own bus had broken down on the way to the game, discomfiting the boys until coach Paul Cuadros spoke up.
"We were standing at the side of the road, and ... they're anxious about what we're going to do," he recounts. "I ask them in Spanish, 'How many of you have crossed the border?' A few raised their hands. So I said, 'This is nothing compared to that. We'll get there, don't worry.' "
The Devil Pups outspent and towered over their opponents. But they lost the hardscrabble 2-0 match, making the Jets the first Hispanic high school team to win a North Carolina championship. In the process, the tight-knit squad brought together a farm town, if only briefly, that's struggled with the impact of an influx of Hispanics and become emblematic of the region's enduring divides, as a bunch of guys with nicknames like Fish, Mosquito, and RoRo rallied the town in a way that neither the media nor union organizers could.
"This is huge - for the kids and for our town," says Gloria Sanchez-Lane, one of about 300 Jets fans, from Hispanic girls with painted faces to goateed white men pushing strollers, who made the journey to Cary for the championship game, sang, "Olé, olé, olé, olé!," banged on snare drums, and blew air horns in a grandstand carnival.
In Chatham County, where Siler City is abuzz with the news, there are already resolutions to add the win to town records. The team picture will hang alongside those of golf, tennis, and basketball champions in the Jordan-Matthews trophy case. But for townspeople and school alums, the Jets' success goes beyond the hallways.
"This is something which unites the community instead of something that causes splits, and it's a very positive thing," says Tommy Emerson, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners and a member of Jordan-Matthews's first graduating class in 1957. "We've struggled with this demographic shift, but there's been a big effort to meet the challenges, and this shows we're doing some things right."
The Jets are a major success in the short, strange history of Hispanic immigration to the South, which began in the early 1990s. Ten years ago, Siler City was a town of blacks and whites. Then came the Hispanic men, arriving in a trickle, then a torrent, to North Carolina's pine-covered plains. They were headed to Siler City, the center of North Carolina's poultry kingdom. In 1996, the families started coming to join husbands and fathers, catching off guard not just schools, but communities and small towns that hadn't expected a rush of new faces with an entire culture in tow.
All along, there have been tensions, compounded by the poverty and uncertain futures of small farm towns that are losing income from tobacco farms and manufacturing plants in recent years.
The conundrums were significant enough to make Siler City a case study for last year's PBS documentary, "Matters of Race," about racial tensions between whites and Hispanics in the the region. Three years earlier, Siler City made news when white supremacist David Duke paid a visit.
During team travel, the Jets have seen those tensions first-hand and gotten used to slurs from the opposition's parents - from threats to call immigration authorities to the simple but hurtful "Stupid Mexicans."
"The thing I would always say is: Just take it out on the field, let's just beat them as badly as we can," says Cuadros. "Our motto has been strength and honor, forca y honor: Strength wins you games, but honor makes you winners."
Still, outright discrimination has been rare on the Jets' home turf, says principal David Moody: "Sure, there are struggles for everybody, but I have been here for four years, and I've never heard a statement, 'Well, I wish they'd go back to their country,' " says Mr. Moody, Indeed, he attributes the victory to the strength of a team that's overcome differences among its players.
In part, that's due to Cuadros, the son of Peruvian immigrants, who came to Siler City in 1999 to write on the emergence of Hispanic communities in the Southeast. Alone and bored, the former high school soccer captain began coaching youth leagues and lobbying the high school to establish a soccer team - an uphill fight in a town where Baptist services and football ruled the weekends.
Many of the players struggled academically and at home; Cuadros helped them with homework and refereed family battles. Several boys whose grades sank last year have worked their way back onto the squad. Cuadros hosted barbecues and team meetings at his house, where he fine-tuned sandlot skills into strategies to compete with physically stronger teams.
Today, Cuadros says, they're also helping to shape a game that, in America, is dominated by traveling clubs and players trained like classical musicians with structured time for practice and games - a contrast to the Hispanic tradition of years of backyard tricks that hone a knack for spontaneous moves.
This year, 3 out of 4 North Carolina conference champions had large numbers of Hispanic players, most of them the sons of immigrants. Cuadros hopes their success will catch college recruiters' eyes.
"This team represents something than just another soccer team," he says. "And everybody's proud of this team, whether they're white, black, or Hispanic."
Celebrating after the game, Abelardo Ramirez, a prolific midfielder with 21 goals for the season, says the win is less about acceptance than perseverance - and an affirmation that honor and hard work have their own rewards. "This is what we fought for," he says, talking about more than the medal around his neck.