There’s a real sense of unease rolling across the White Mountains right now, emanating from the small town of Lakeside where high school football is the glue that has bonded the community for generations.
Tonight, the Yellow Jackets of Blue Ridge High School will take the field again, for their third game of the season. At this point, the team would generally be 2-0 and outscoring its opponents by three or four touchdowns a game.
But they enter tonight’s home game with Winslow High School — which beat Holbrook High in its opener 44-8 — as a (gasp) winless team.
Not only do they not have a win yet, but they also don’t have the head coach that has been on the Blue Ridge sidelines for the past 30 seasons. And that’s what has the local fans really concerned.
Had the new head coach, Jacob Belshe, come out firing this season, winning both games by comfortable margins, there probably would be far less angst over the fact that Paul Moro has moved on to coach at Poston Butte High School down the hill in Florence.
Moro had been the only football coach that several generations of players ever knew, taking the school of fewer than 800 students into 16 state championship games – and winning an incredible 13 of those. His record of 319 wins against just 52 losses is the stuff of legend.
Few, if any, teams were able to run up the score under Moro. Certainly nothing like the 55-7 thumping Prescott High gave the Yellow Jackets last Friday. So you can’t blame the locals for wondering how that could happen to the defending Division IV state champions. The opening game against Tucson’s Sahuarita High School wasn’t any more encouraging; the Jackets lost that one, 30-8.
On top of that, Blue Ridge hadn’t been beaten at home since 2006. That aura of invincibility has also been shattered.
Prescott, a Division III school, simply overwhelmed the Yellow Jacket defense as senior running back Skylor Clinton went on a rampage, scoring four touchdowns in a game that was over early. The Badgers held Blue Ridge to a single touchdown it picked up in the first quarter and took control by halftime when the margin had widened to 29-7.
Clinton finished the night with 197 yards on 16 carries. He was the offense in that game, as quarterback Bill Kepner threw just five passes all night, picking up 21 yards.
This Blue Ridge team bore no resemblance to those of the past as the Jackets gave up the first 14 points on a punt that was blocked in their own end zone and recovered by the senior nose guard, Gio Bellino, for the first score, and a follow-up fumble recovery that junior linebacker Marcus Diaz carried in for the second quick score. Add to that a safety later in the game and it was obvious this was going to be a long night for the home team.
And it’s beginning to look like it may be a long season as well for those fans that continue to show up.
Belshe needs time to earn ownership of this program, but it’s not as if this were a re-building project. However, it’s not easy to step in behind a legend and deal with the pressure and expectations that come with a job like this.
His biggest hurdle is going to be convincing a community deeply rooted in Friday night success that he is the man for the job. Belshe wasn’t the school’s first choice, and most people expected the hire would be a high-profile coach, preferably with roots in the community and with loads of experience that could continue the Blue Ridge tradition.
On the contrary, this is the first head-coaching job for Belshe, who went to high school in the White Mountains, but not at Blue Ridge. He played football at the University of Arizona and UTEP and was on staff at UTEP for a year before becoming the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for a high school in Texas.
Since he grew up in the White Mountains, he had to be very aware of the situation at Blue Ridge. He came into the job with his eyes wide open. But the jump to an elite program for a first-time head coach may have been more than he anticipated.
The real test of whether he’s up to the challenge will come in about four weeks. That’s how long he has to prepare his team for the annual rivalry game with Show Low High School, the other prep power that resides in the high country, just 10 miles down the road.
That Oct. 10 game is drenched in tradition and draws standing-room-only crowds that show up expecting one of the best games of the season. And this year the game will be played at Blue Ridge.
Home-field advantage is something the Jackets can certainly use this year.
Or it could be one more huge embarrassment for a new coach still trying to get his legs under him.