One week before the team was about to head into the state championships, a team member dropped out. The rest of the team had only practiced for the big day once: the day before the actual competition. Then, another member arrived at the championship 30 minutes late.
Facing 67 other high schools from across the state, and their own team's adversity, Glenn High School's competition BBQ team smoked the competition to win a first place trophy and claim the state title for its brisket.
The Leander ISD school's BBQ team consists of five high school students in Glenn’s culinary program who compete against other high schools in fast-paced BBQ cook-offs.
Months of work culminated in an appearance at the State High School BBQ Championship on May 4. The event, which was started by High School BBQ Cookers Association, had students working from the early morning hours and into the evening to prepare five dishes for the judges: chicken, brisket, ribs, beans and dessert.
The association itself was created in 2018 by Mike Erikson, and the state championship event followed several regional qualifying events around Texas.
So far, around 75 high schools from around Texas have signed up with the association to assemble their own teams as part of their Career and Technical Education programs. Schools pay $250 to the association to start their teams and pay $200 for each competition where they participate. Erikson said that entry fees, in combination with various donor funds and work from volunteers, funds his organization.
The meats for each competition event are provided by the competition’s sponsor.
Each dish is given to the panel of volunteer judges at different times during the day. Dessert must be completed and served on a Styrofoam tray by 9:30 a.m., then comes beans at 11 a.m., chicken at 12:30 p.m., ribs at 2 p.m. and brisket at 3 p.m.
The judges are picked on a first-come, first-served basis and are local community members where the competition takes place. The number of judges varies based on the number of BBQ teams competing.
For Glenn High School — Leander ISD's newest high school, completed in 2016 and graduating its first class of seniors this May — the competition marked another triumphant first among many for the new school.
For the team — known as the Glenn High School Smokin’ Mavens, consisting of students Evan Coleman, Manny Hernandez, Raul Rico, Jose Rangel and Ian Campbell — their victory capped a challenging week of preparation and stress.
The team was stunned. A week before the state championship competition, their teammate in charge of cooking the ribs, Matthew Thrush, decided to leave the group.
“Everyone was sort of in shock,” said Evan Coleman, the pitmaster and leader of the team.
Though the team had finished the regional competition in October 2018, they hadn’t done much preparation in the interim for the coming state championship. Now that a team member was missing, Olivia Rodriguez, the culinary arts instructor who started the team, needed to find a replacement quickly.
Luckily, she knew someone eager to join the team: Ian Campbell, a senior in Glenn High School who had previously signed up for the team but couldn’t join because all the positions had already been filled.
“Ian wanted to join at the beginning of the year, but it was full, so we knew already that we had someone who could come in and was ready to work,” Coleman said.
Now that Thrush had left, Campbell had an opportunity to join the team.
“[Rodriquez] came out, talked to me and said ‘hey, is your schedule free and for the next couple of weeks can you fill in for Matt to take over this ribs position?’,” said Campbell.
“I said ‘yeah’, but I had never cooked ribs before our practice run for this competition,” he said.
“I was ecstatic, I was so pumped.”
Even with the lost position filled, the team still needed to prepare for the championship coming that week.
To do that, the team decided to do a practice run of the competition. They did a mimic competition a day before the actual championship, complete with all the dishes that they were going to cook. The food would be served to the various teachers and staff at the event at times corresponding to the actual competition times.
Still, the exact specifications of dishes that some members were going to cook still needed to be decided. Though the recipes for the brisket, chicken, and beans largely stayed the same as they were during the regional competition, the dessert, helmed by Rico, and the ribs still had details to be hashed out.
“I did two racks of ribs at the practice run. I made my own personal rub and our mentor had a rub that’s a store-bought competition rub a lot of people use,” Campbell said.
The final decision was that the ribs would use a combination of both styles. Campbell’s seasoning and the final resting technique from the other style were chosen for the competition.
For the dessert, Rico had to decide between a peach cobbler and a Texas chocolate sheet cake. He had made both at the regional competition, but the peach cobbler didn’t finish in time, so he served the sheet cake.
During the practice run, Rico got useful advice that helped him figure out which dessert to serve.
“I asked one of my teachers, and she said that she’d seen some BBQ competitions before. She said she goes to competitions and sees a lot of cobblers, so, at some point, [the judges] might get tired of cobblers,” Rico said.
Ultimately, he decided to cook the sheet cake.
With those aspects of the team’s plan settled, they were ready for the competition the next day.
“Everybody had their game face on,” said Chad Coleman, the team’s mentor.
Most of the teammates woke up around 3 a.m. to get themselves ready to leave for the competition. Everybody on the team except for Campbell traveled to Burnet High School, where the competition was held. Campbell traveled to the event on his own and the adult leaders on the team also traveled separately.
Campbell arrived late at around 5:30 a.m., 30 minutes after the fires needed to be burning. When he arrived, he immediately apologized to Rodriguez for being late. Luckily, the team was still waiting to receive their meats to cook.
When Campbell received the ribs, there was a problem. The bones on the ribs were situated in a variety of unusual angles and curves, which made cutting them for serving much harder.
Still, even with the side bones, Cambell pulled through and was able to complete the ribs on time at 2 p.m. However, due to the bones, "we barely had enough good cuts to turn in,” said Coleman.
For the brisket, the recipe used during the regional competition stayed exactly as it was. To qualify for serving, the brisket needed to be cut to a certain thickness, about the width of a number two pencil.
“We all felt really good about the brisket. We didn’t really have any concerns, everyone felt it was really good and it was plated correctly,” Coleman said.
In the end, the team was able to turn in all their dishes on time. “We all worked great as a team and it was perfect,” said Rangel, who cooked the beans for the team.
After the brisket was given to the judges at 3 p.m., the team had nothing left to do but wait for the results.
The award ceremony took place inside the Burnet High School gym at 5:30 p.m. and was packed with the other teams who had competed, each awaiting the results.
“At the beginning, you’re just focused on turning everything in on time, making sure that everything is okay. But just when it’s about to end is when you realize ‘oh wow, it’s about that time when they’re going to judge everybody and give us our place,’” said Rico, the teammate who handled the dessert. “That’s when the actual nerves start."
After it was announced that the team had finished first in brisket and received the “Tough As A Boot Randy Longoria Grand Champion Brisket Memorial Trophy,” the team was elated.
Chad Coleman, the team’s mentor, said his reaction to the win was “an embarrassing scream.”
“When they called ours, everybody jumped up and was yelling. Everyone was really happy and ecstatic,” said Evan Coleman, the pitmaster.
Though the team didn’t immediately celebrate, they did have a pizza party a week later in which they chatted with the school’s principal, Arturo Lomeli, about their win.
The team later learned that they had qualified for the World Food Championships taking place in October of this year. Yet, with most of the five team members having graduated this past week, the makeup of the team that goes to nationals is still being decided.
“Everybody graduated, so there is a little bit of debate on that. I’m sure over the summer Ms. Rodriquez and I will try to come up with a plan. I know that my son Evan plans on participating and as many of the members who are still here and not going to school out of state or have to work plan on participating."
Reflecting on his experience being on the team, Hernandez looks back fondly.
"Overall, it’s just a fun experience. You get to spend the day with some of your friends in school and you get to come together to prepare something,” Hernandez said. “We were all cracking jokes and giving each other advice on how to do better. It’s one of those experiences that’s just fun."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the fee paid to create the team is $250, plus $200 for each competition, not a $450 fee to create the team. Also, the team qualified for the World Food Championships — an international competition — in October, not a national competition.