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Photo by Jennifer Stribling / Making sacrifices that include studying by lamp aren't too much for the group of McCallie students guarding a Blue Tornado spirit banner near the Tennessee River in Chattanooga.

How far would you go to show your school spirit?

Would you camp out all night on a Tennessee River boat dock to protect a 40-foot banner displaying your school's logo? Would you do your homework and study for tests each evening by the dim light of a kerosene lantern because the property has no electricity? Would you bathe in the river each morning before heading to school?

You would if you were a loyal group of McCallie students determined to guard a giant Blue Tornado banner that's hanging this week from a 75-foot metal tower a few hundred yards toward Red Bank from the north end of the Market Street Bridge in celebration of Friday night's Baylor-McCallie football game at Finley Stadium.

"We were sitting around one day a couple of years ago and decided we wanted to create the biggest banner we could, then hang it up and protect it," said McCallie senior Strib Stribling, a proud member of the school's 2020 co-state champion swimming and diving team. "We did it for the first time last year. Now we've all got cousins and little brothers who can't wait to carry on the tradition when they get older."

The Baylor-McCallie rivalry never gets old, whether it's swimming — the schools shared that state title last winter not long before the coronavirus hit — football or handmade spirit flags tied to PVC pipes on the backs of pickup trucks. With McCallie, the reigning TSSAA Division II Class AAA state champ, currently ranked second in the classification and Baylor third, the intensity could be at an all-time high.

So when Stribling and his buddies came up with the crisp, timeless design that hangs from the tower, a relative decided it needed a professional touch.

"They'd been trying to do it with bed sheets," said Ross Ballenger of Creative Business Forms in Ooltewah. "A relative stepped up and said he'd pay to have it done professionally. We do some work for McCallie, so we already had the official logos. It took about three or four days, but we got it done in time for last year's game."

Said Stribling of the final product, which is made of 13-ounce vinyl, measures 40 feet by 15 feet and weighs close to 75 pounds: "It made my day."

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Photo by Jennifer Stribling / McCallie students are guarding this Blue Tornado spirit banner that hangs near the Market Street Bridge this week as the school's football team prepares to take on rival Baylor on Friday night at Finley Stadium.

But hanging it on that tower and keeping it there throughout the most intense high school rivalry week this side of Marion County-South Pittsburg is a different matter. As those bedsheet flags have proliferated over the past couple of decades, so, unfortunately, has the vandalism of them, much to the chagrin of administrators at both schools, as well as those at Girls Preparatory School, McCallie's sister school.

Just last week an email was sent to parents and students of all three schools with the following warning: "During the last few years, we have seen an increase in students cutting flags off vehicles. Please understand that the administrations at McCallie, GPS, and Baylor view this action as a form of vandalism and will treat it as such. Do not risk your participation in this great week's activities over such a foolish act."

Stribling and the rest of the Banner Bunch aren't taking any chances. Beginning Sunday night, the core group — Jack Braman, Riley DeVaney, Sam Diamondidis, Storm Edens, William Stamper, Daevyn Maurya Smith, Jake Tremain, Holden Wilhoit, Frankie Zahrobsky and Stribling — began camping out on the boat dock below the banner tower to protect it. An off-duty policeman has been hired to stay with them each night.

Each morning they take a quick plunge in the river, then drive to school, the daytime guarding of the banner entrusted to Stribling's mother, Jennifer, and some of her friends.

"I'm OK with them bathing in the river," Jennifer said with a smile Tuesday. "I just hope they don't brush their teeth in it."

Said Braman, a standout wrestler who had to cram for a Monday physics test by the light of a kerosene lamp: "That river's pretty cold."

Tremain, who has a crazy busy academic week with an anatomy test Thursday and an AP calculus test on Friday, said of the six-night commitment: "It's an excuse to act crazy."

But not for everyone. Though the Banner Bunch is expected to grow to 25 by Thursday night, a couple of unnamed football players have already been banished from participating the last two nights before the game.

"We need them at home getting their rest," Stribling said. "We're not getting much sleep. We weren't tired last year until Wednesday or Thursday. We're already tired this year."

We're all tired of this awful year in one way or another. Whichever school loses Friday will feel even worse going forward.

To that end, Baylor assistant headmaster Shaw Wilson said Tueday: "Our kids have been awesome about what we've asked of them to keep school open. Still, these kids deserve a fun week. And not just our kids; all the kids that are in school everywhere during this pandemic."

Added Jennifer Stribling of the Banner Bunch's crusade to protect a 40-foot blue vinyl flag: "There's not a lot of fun out there for these kids right now. There's not a lot of spirit. We're just trying to let our boys have some fun."

At least as long as they don't brush their teeth in the river.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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