Not long after the work day shuts down Friday evening, the long procession of vehicles will begin the annual trek between the tiny Arizona communities of Show Low and Lakeside to watch a high school football game.
Not just ‘A’ football game… THE football game.
The drive along White Mountain Boulevard, which is also the Highway 260 corridor between the two towns, is just 10 miles long and takes about 12 minutes to traverse – except perhaps on this Friday. But it wouldn’t matter if it were 100 miles. The stands would still fill to capacity and another 100 or so would be standing along the fences to take in what has become the biggest rivalry game in the high country, and one of the biggest in the state.
This year, it’s the Show Low fans that will make the trip to play in Lakeside.
When the Cougars of Show Low High School collide with the Blue Ridge High Yellowjackets, it offers residents in the White Mountains one of the biggest events of the year, a game that is circled on the calendars of families in both communities as soon as the season’s schedules are released.
Two years ago, the anticipation for the annual match-up was off the charts because both schools were undefeated and ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in 3A football. Now they’ve both been assigned to the new Division IV.
(*Update: Ben Watson returned an interception 93 yards for a Blue Ridge touchdown to get the fans excited, and then Nolan Cook added two more rushing TDs in the second half to beat Show Low for the third straight time, 24-14. The Blue Ridge defense made a huge contribution to the win, forcing five Show Low turnovers.)
The hype surrounding that game had been at a fever pitch since mid-season, when it was apparent the two teams would meet as unbeatens in the regular season.
Blue Ridge won that game, 36-18. But it just set the stage for the state championship game between the two powers, and Show Low evened the score by handing the Yellowjackets their only loss of the season, a 20-17 victory for the 3A state title.
So, 2010 turned out to be a draw – and just served to heat things up even more.
Last year, Blue Ridge went undefeated again, beating their White Mountain rivals by just a single point in the regular-season meeting, but this time capped the season with a 35-14 victory over the Cougars in the state championship game for their 12th state football title. The two teams have dominated the state tournament in recent years, meeting in the last three title games, as Blue Ridge claimed two of those.
This year they’re both undefeated again, with Blue Ridge ranked No. 1 and Show Low No. 2, and have been rolling over the opposition. Blue Ridge has outscored its opponents 407-48 in building a 9-0 record and has pitched five shutouts out of the last six games; Round Valley High School managed to score 14 points on the Yellowjackets back in mid-September.
And they have a full head of steam going into Friday night, having outscored opponents 220-0 through the last four games.
Show Low, which avenged last year’s season-opening loss to Moapa Valley High in the Barry Sollenberger Kickoff Classic by beating the Nevada team in the 2012 Sollenberger, is 8-0 and has been almost as dominant as Blue Ridge, outscoring its opponents 340-79.
Friday’s game is important for a numbers of reasons – in addition to a year of bragging rights. It represents an undefeated season for one of the two teams. Each has one remaining game. Show Low plays Alchesay High School from White River, which hasn’t won a game this season, and Blue Ridge finishes with Winslow High. Winslow is 5-3, but it lost to Snowflake High, which Blue Ridge beat 50-0. Do the math.
And it will probably set the stage once again for the state championship game, when odds are both teams will appear.
The Blue Ridge offense is being directed by a senior quarterback, Skyler Hill, who doesn’t throw a lot but has a .615 completion percentage. But it’s the ground game that is running up the scores, averaging nearly 360 yards a game behind the lead of running back Nolan Cook, a junior who transferred into the program this year and has already run up 1,108 yards and is averaging almost 12 yards a carry..
However, Show Low also takes pride in its ability to gobble up yards. In last week’s 65-21 victory over Safford High School, the offense, behind junior QB Colby Maxwell, piled up 422 yards rushing to bring the Cougars’ total for the night to 565 yards. Maxwell is averaging 140 passing yards.
The Yellowjackets will also have to find a way to keep Colten Merrill and Dallin Crandell in check. Merrill, the senior running back, picked up 157 yards and two scores against Safford, and the junior Crandell is averaging just a few yards shy of the 100-mark each game.
Blue Ridge’s offensive engine has actually been operating at less than maximum efficiency since their 6’3″, 235-pound fullback, Chans Cox, has been nursing a high ankle sprain throughout his senior season. Cox was ranked by Rivals.com as the state’s No. 1 recruit in the 2013 class and given a No. 58 national ranking.
Cox, who also plays linebacker, hasn’t been able to give the Yellowjackets his best the past couple of seasons, due to injuries. Last year the Arizona State-commit missed five games with a shoulder injury – but still piled up 700 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns.
But he’s expected to be close to full strength for this game. It would take much more than an ankle sprain to keep him from playing in this one.
Just like it would take a lot more than a little traffic on the 260 to keep the fans home Friday night.