After the Jackson Academy of Mississippi traveled to San Marino High for a football game last season, Coach Bill Maloney and his team scarcely thought of a rematch in Jackson.
The teams had initially planned for a home-and-home series that would conclude with San Marino visiting Jackson for a long-distance intersectional game. But San Marino officials thought financing the trip would be next to impossible.
"After last year's game we were approached by the people at Jackson Academy about coming back, and we told them that we couldn't afford it," recalled James Ukropina, president of the San Marino High School Football Booster Club. "Our district is like a lot of districts after Proposition 13 and (it) couldn't afford to spend that kind of money to send us."
The estimated cost was $20,000 to $25,000, Ukropina said, considerably more than the booster club could have raised. That was until the Jackson Academy Booster Club stepped into the picture.
"To our surprise, Jackson agreed to put up most of the $20,000 to $25,000 that it would take to send us back there," Ukropina said.
Mike Frascogna, a member of the Jackson Academy Booster Club who helped organize the game, wouldn't say exactly how much money but added that "it was a substantial amount, to say the least, but it was not all of it."
The end result is that San Marino will play Jackson at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Jackson Academy Stadium in Mississippi. The Titans left this morning and will return Sunday.
Make no mistake about it, this is one road trip the players are excited about.
"I'm sure it will stay with us forever," said senior quarterback Mike Ukropina, son of the booster club president. "For most people, your senior year means a lot anyway. But for us, this is something special. To be in high school and get to travel like this is really incredible."
"For some of the players, they'll never go on a trip like this again, and they probably won't be back in that part of the country again," the elder Ukropina added.
He said San Marino is sending a contingent of 55, including 45 players, the coaches and team officials. There will also be about 55 parents and team boosters, who paid their own way to make the trip.
Although the trip revolves around the football game, Ukropina said the game will represent only a small portion of the team's activities in Jackson.
The team has a light schedule after arriving today. The Titans will have an early-evening practice, then dinner as guests of the Jackson Academy.
The schedule takes a more frantic pace Friday. It starts with the team attending classes at the high school in the morning. "We're going to school there, and we'll be paired up with their players," Maloney said. "It should be a rewarding cultural experience."
Maloney said the team will hold its final practice at noon Friday in hopes of adjusting to the expected hot, humid conditions.
"Getting acclimated to the heat will be a chore," Ukropina said. "I scouted their first game (against East Holmes on Aug. 25) and it was 8 p.m. and still about 85 degrees with 80% humidity."
After practice, team members will attend a campus pep rally before leaving for a visit to the state capitol, where they will be taken on a tour by Mississippi Lt. Gov. Brad Dye. Later that day, they will be guests at a catfish fry at the Jim Buck Ross Agricultural Museum. They will also have an opportunity to tour the facility that offers a slice of Southern history.
On Saturday there will be a pregame parade that will feature the University of Mississippi marching band. The band, which will be in Jackson for the Mississippi-Arkansas football game Saturday night, will also perform at halftime of the high school game.
After the high school game, the San Marino team will attend the Mississippi-Arkansas game, which Ukropina said has long been sold out. "Not only is the game a sellout, but all the hotels in the area are sold out," he said. "I guess that shows you just how big football is in the South."
Ukropina said San Marino has tried to "set up a significant educational itinerary that will make it an enjoyable experience for the players."
But he also said the people at Jackson Academy have bent over backward to make their stay memorable.
"One of the things that has really made it great for us is the gracious way the people of the South have treated us," he said. "They've done a lot of things that they didn't have to do to make this a better experience for us. . . . They even offered us the use of their homes, although we didn't take them up on that."
Frascogna said it is not simply another case of Southern hospitality.
"I'm sure you've heard of Southern hospitality, and that's part of it," Frascogna said. "That's a Southern tradition, and we're proud of it. In addition, the Jackson Academy was extremely impressed by the hospitality shown to them by San Marino people when they came out there.
"There were a lot of friendships made and developed, and a lot of people look forward to seeing them again."