In the sleepy little community of Pinetop-Lakeside, high in the White Mountains of Arizona, the usual eager anticipation of another state-title run for its high school football team has been replaced with an unusual off-season uneasiness that permeates the entire community.
High-school football in this town of barely 4,000 people becomes the focal point of conversation and the main event of the weekends during the fall. Winning games – and state titles – has become just as expected as the blanket of snow that falls each year before the football season can wrap up.
But that aura of invincibility began to fade when the Blue Ridge High School head football coach headed down the mountain in January to take a similar position at Poston Butte High School in Florence.
Paul Moro had been the only football coach that several generations of young players ever knew, guiding the Yellowjacket program for 30 years as its head coach, after serving another five as an assistant. Moro was the football program.
Under the 62-year-old coach, Blue Ridge played in 16 state championship games, and won 13 of those. His record of 319 wins against just 52 losses is the stuff of legend. There are only eight other high-school coaches in the country who have won more than 300 games – and somehow the little Division IV school of fewer than 800 students held on to that talent and dedication to the game for three decades.
His replacement, it was assumed, would be an experienced, high-profile coach who would welcome the opportunity to take over a storied program like this one. And it was hoped that person would be a Blue Ridge alumni who had a deep understanding of what the program means to the community and a commitment to carrying on the legacy.
A logical choice would have been someone like Jeremy Hathcock, the head coach at Desert Ridge High School in Mesa, who had played for Moro during his prep days and went on to become a successful head coach. They asked Hathcock, who had even spent a couple of seasons learning the coaching side of the game as an assistant to Moro, but he reportedly declined.
Hey, that would have been too easy.
Instead, the administration soon realized how difficult it was going to be to find someone willing to take on the kind of pressure and expectations that come with following a legend.
But they found their man just days ago – in El Paso, Texas.
Jacob Belshe went to high school in the White Mountains, at Round Valley and St. Johns high schools, and also spent a year as the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Westwind Preparatory Academy in Phoenix.
The 33-year-old Belshe played football at the University of Arizona and UTEP, was on staff for a year at UTEP, and graduated from that school. He is coming back to the White Mountains from Parkland High School in El Paso, where he has been serving as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the varsity program.
Blue Ridge’s athletic director, Richard Ormand, has high praise for his new head coach, referring to him in one news article as “a total coaching/teaching package.” But he’s not exactly what the locals were expecting.
These fans are the ones that fill the stands to capacity at home games, and then fit in another 100 or so that will stand along the fences. And if it’s an away game, some of the local merchants will close up shop a little early to get on the road to be at the game in time for kick-off.
The annual rivalry with the other power in this part of the state, Show Low High School, is such a huge event that it has even been covered by ESPN television. The two schools are located just 10 miles apart and the kids in both communities hang out together, so bragging rights take on an uncommon level of intensity.
It’s important to the Blue Ridge faithful that their new head coach understand the depth of this commitment to high-school football. That’s why they were looking for a leader who had already ‘been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt’.
As someone who went to school in the White Mountains, Belshe knows the significance of high-school football in that part of the country. But he doesn’t have the Yellowjacket purple and gold flowing through his veins.
And, an even bigger consideration for the fan base…this is his first head-coaching job.
Only time will tell if this hire ends in success. But it’s easy to see why the natives are restless right now.