AUSTIN (KXAN) — Five high school students will attempt to smoke the competition at a national barbecue-making competition happening here in Central Texas.

Early before classes began one Thursday morning, the barbecue team at Navarro Early College High School spent time seasoning and cooking 25 racks of ribs in the large cylindrical smoker they built themselves, which they nicknamed “el jefe grande.”

Neighbors bought the meat through a fundraising effort so that senior Jose Delacruz and his friends could have some more practice and additional money to prepare for the National High School BBQ Championship, a cooking contest organized by the National High School BBQ Association.

“It feels great,” Delacruz said when asked about qualifying for nationals. “It’s one of those moments where the hard work really does pay off and all those practices, the late nights and early wakeup times. It really did pull through.”

The team’s coach, Tracey Cortez, said the students qualified to compete for the national barbecue title after winning first and second at two respective regional competitions and then finishing in the top 20 at the state contest. The Navarro students will be one of 22 teams competing from Texas and Missouri, national director Mike Erickson told KXAN in an email. Schools from Ohio and Tennessee also qualified, but they cannot make the trip to Texas for the national championship.

“I think their odds are pretty good,” Cortez said about his students. “The teams from other states haven’t been cooking brisket, and we cook brisket a lot and so we have a little bit of advantage there. But [the other teams] also have an advantage because they cook chicken thighs, and that’s not something that we are accustomed to. I think I’d be happy with a top five finish, but wherever they are, they cooked the best that they could that day.”

Delacruz’s specialties at the barbecue competitions are his brisket, burgers and steak. Sophomore Leonardo Hernandez takes on ribs, while junior Luis Lopez tackles chicken. Desserts and beans are handled by senior Eno Celias Solano.

“Winning is cool,” Solano said, “But just sharing a moment with these guys is the best. They’re the best team I could have.”

Delacruz joined the barbecue team last year after going through school in the COVID-19 pandemic made him want to try something new.

“It’s really fun and just like cook with everyone and have a good time, and I think that’s something barbecue does,” he said. “It’s just about the whole community, not really much about the meat.”

Cortez, who teaches agricultural science at the high school, said the barbecue team formed six years ago, and he has seen it benefit his students beyond simply figuring out how to cook. He said they also learn responsibility, time management, teamwork and communication.

“All those things that you hear from sports that kids learn, it’s kind of the same thing with barbecue,” he added. “They’ve been able to take a skill and then continue to hone their craft.”

The National High School BBQ Competition

The National High School BBQ Championship will begin on June 18 at the Kalahari Resort in Round Rock. The grand prize includes thousands of dollars in scholarships for the winning team.

While it’s too soon to tell how the Navarro team will fair in the different categories at nationals this year, Delacruz is considering how cooking will factor into his future after high school. While he didn’t want to be put on the spot too much, he said he’s thinking about possibly opening his own barbecue truck one day.

“It’s really a Texas thing,” he said, “And I’m glad that I joined it.”