HILMAR — Manuel Marques was never a football fan.
An old farmhand from Portugal, Marques was not a sports enthusiast of any kind. But he particularly had trouble getting into American football when he immigrated to the United States.
Even having a son who starred and later went on to coach at Hilmar High didn’t warm Marques to the sport.
“It just wasn’t his thing,” Yellowjackets head coach Frank Marques said. “It didn’t matter that I was playing or coaching a game, he wasn’t that interested.
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“But there was one game every year that he didn’t miss. He always wanted to know when the homecoming game was so he could watch the floats.”
Homecoming isn’t exactly an exclusive tradition. All schools with football participate in it during the fall, but few go to the extremes of the city of Hilmar.
“The work and the imagination that goes into the floats is what separates our homecoming with just about everybody else,” Marques explained.
“They’ve made some impressive things over the years. And every year the whole town pretty much turns out to see them.”
The effort put forth for the four class floats sounds more like preparation for the Rose Parade than a typical high school homecoming.
The four classes begin months in advance on the floats and previous float makers offer their services in the development and execution.
While some, like the older Marques, may have turned out specifically for the show, everyone stays for the football.
It’s a standing-room-only environment with a palpable buzz that can be felt from the home locker room.
"It's not like any other game that you play in,” senior defensive end David Bisby said. "You can feel it in the air as soon as you wake up."
"It's a crazy scene. When you watch it as a kid, you just dream about getting to play in it."
This year’s homecoming ticket should be a hot item with the Yellowjackets again expected to compete for a blue banner. A disappointing 6-5 record last year relit the fires in Marques’ 13 returning starters. A highly anticipated junior class will provide added skill and depth.
Bisby, defensive end Britten Smith and linebacker Joseph Bello are expected to lead a fast and ferocious defense.
All three will also see time on an athletic offensive line as Hilmar will shift entirely to a spread offense this season. Beau Balswick is the incumbent under center, but is being challenged for the starting job by junior Jonathan O’Brien. The eventual starting quarterback will have a bevy of weapons around him.
Breck Smith rushed for almost 700 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. Running back Bailey Gomes and wide receiver Jake Smith provide a pair of new playmakers this fall.
“It doesn’t really matter what happened last season, every year, we have new expectations,” Smith said. “We know last year’s team got a little lazy, so we got after it hard in the weight room and will be ready to go.
"We've got some guys that can do special things on offense, and our defense should be lights out. We're excited to get after it."