Jaydah Watson still feels chills from the end of the first Highland Park football game this season, when she was a part of a crowd of students who rushed the field after the final whistle blew.
"That’s all I wanted to talk about," said Watson, a junior cheerleader. "It’s all I was posting to my story, and it’s all I wanted to talk about to my friends who go to other schools. It was like, ‘We finally did it, y’all.’"
For eight long seasons and 65 straight games, the Highland Park football team had failed to win a single game. But the team — playing this year in the more even KCK-Atchison League — made history as it broke that long losing streak in its Sept. 2 home season opener, beating Wyandotte High 60-47.
Losing streak ended, Highland Park starts season 3-0
The team continued to impress when it proved that the first win was not a fluke, and they could take on anyone in the conference by soundly beating Schlagle High 48-29 as visitors in Kansas City a week later.
"It just makes people feel more proud to go here. I know it sucks for me, just in being a cheerleader for a losing team, but we don’t talk about that anymore," joked Alizé Davis, a senior on the cheer team and a nominee for homecoming queen.
It's a mood that's spread to the rest of the school, as more and more students cheer on the football team. In the week leading up to Friday's homecoming game against Sumner Academy, a buzz of excitement filled the school's cafeteria.
That atmosphere was missing in most schools for the past few years, as COVID-19 dampened many schools' extracurriculars and building traditions. This year's Highland Park seniors remember that even in the middle of the football team's losing streak, students had made some momentum on building school spirit, but even that was dashed when schools shut down in spring 2020.
Now, the seniors have a deep desire to get four years' of experiences out of their last at Highland Park.
"It just feels like it’s different, now that we’re the big dogs," said Mackey James, a senior defensive tackle on the football team. "When we were freshmen, it felt terrifying, but now that we’re older, we’re just trying to enjoy all of this, because for a lot of us, it’s our last year. We’re almost done."
"It’s made more people come out, because it’s made people want to be a part of that — us winning and having a better season," said star senior Trevontae Richardson, who is being highly recruited after recently decommitting from New Mexico State.
'I would prefer to go here compared to anywhere else'
For years, the Highland Park students had gotten to used to their counterparts at Topeka High and West treating them like students of a school in almost of a second-tier to theirs.
There's a perception that used to go along with attending Highland Park — that it's "ghetto" or on the wrong side of Topeka Boulevard — that the students say is no longer, and may have never been, accurate.
At Highland Park, the school's small size has helped it feel like a family, and if students do come from lower-income backgrounds, that smaller environment has helped create more family-like systems of support these past few years.
"They look at our past, and our location, and not at what we’re doing," Davis said. "I would prefer to go here compared to anywhere else."
Of course, the school's latest success on the field and on the court has helped build a sense of community.
"This year, Highland Park is a lot more competitive." said Jayden Sanchez, a senior and member of the homecoming court. "Soccer, football — basketball has always been competitive — they have a lot more leverage now."
No matter what happens the rest of the season, the students — members of the football team or otherwise — feel that they've at least broken through barriers and set new standards for the program, and for the school.
The pressure is gone, and the monkey is off their backs.
Highland Park students eager to see what happens next
What can stop them now?
"It’s given the school something to do on a Friday night," James said. "Instead of going out wherever and doing whatever, you can actually come and watch us play a good game now."
"You win some, you lose some, and that’s why we’re not too worried," Sanchez said. "Going to Highland Park, you learn to take an L but learn from it, and bounce right back."
The Highland Park Scots defeated Sumner Academy 63-36 Friday evening. The team is now 3-0. The team's third and final home game is Senior Night, 7 p.m. Thursday at Hummer Sports Park.
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 785-289-5325. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.
This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Highland Park High sees surge in school spirit as football team wins