Early-season excitement awaits prep football fans up north

High school football in the Arizona high country is a world unto itself… far above the fray down below in the Phoenix Valley, or farther south in the Tucson area.

Rivalries in the smaller communities of the north are intense, often go back generations, and whole towns turn out on Friday night for the big events.

The biggest of the big events last year was the much-anticipated showdown between Show Low High School and Blue Ridge High School in Lakeside.  The communities are just a few miles apart and both teams were undefeated going into the late October game, which Blue Ridge won, 38-18, to secure the White Mountain bragging rights.

But Show Low got its revenge in the 3A state championship game, taking the title by beating Blue Ridge, 20-17, for its only loss of the season.

This year, Show Low takes its brand of small-school football down the hill to play in the Aug. 20 Sollenberger Kickoff Classic at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.  The game traditionally opens the high school season by pitting an Arizona state champion against a title holder from Nevada.

The Arizona Scholastic Association, which operates the event, added an extra game this year, and Show Low was selected to play it after finishing 13-1 and winning the 2010 title.  Scottsdale’s Chaparral High School, from the 5A-II division, will play Nevada big-school champ, Bishop Gorman High School, in the main event.  Show Low will play in the early game against Moapa Valley High, another Nevada school.

However, the following week the spotlight shifts back to the high country when Prescott High School opens its season Aug. 26 against Bradshaw Mountain High School.

You have to be a true fan of the Prescott area high school sports scene to understand the significance of this one.  The storyline here will be focused more on the coaching than the teams.

Steve Moran will be directing the Prescott program, taking over after Lou Beneitone retired after last season.  Actually, he’s replacing Bob Young, but Young was in charge of the Badger program for only about a month before deciding to return to Mingus High School in Cottonwood, where he has been a coaching tradition for many years.   So his brief stop-over in Prescott doesn’t really count.

But the point of interest to local fans is that Moran, who has been a coaching fixture in the high school game for decades, was the head coach at Bradshaw Mountain for 14 years.  Under his direction, the team won eight region titles and made it to six state semifinal games.  He left in 1997, but has been helping out with other programs since then and says he’s ready to return to a head coach role.

So this game will generate almost as much interest as the more high-profile rivalries up in the pines, and offer local fans a great way to start the 2011 season – a mile above those other games down on the desert floor.