It doesn’t feel like fall yet in the high country of the Arizona White Mountains. But there is something else in the air up there that is bringing back fond memories to the locals…the anticipation of a football rivalry that may be returning to the glory days.
And that makes it feel like the world is right again up among the towering pines.
After the first five games of the 2015 season, Show Low High School and Blue Ridge High are back on top in Division IV, each undefeated and marching steadily toward the annual display of fireworks, just a couple of weeks down the road.
For a couple of teams that have enjoyed dominance in the small-school game, last season ended with uncharacteristic results. Show Low finished 5-7 and Blue Ridge 5-6.
But they still managed to put on a show for their fans in the rivalry game, with Show Low pulling out a 36-29 victory in a barn-burner that went into overtime. Team records mean little when this game arrives on the schedule.
Over the past eight years, since Randy Ricedorff took over as head coach, Show Low has posted double-digit wins in all but one season. And Blue Ridge has set the standard for as long as anyone in the sleepy little Pinetop-Lakeside community can remember, playing in 16 state championship games under head coach Paul Moro and winning 13 of those.
More than once, the annual meeting would be between teams with undefeated records and a state title on the line.
However, Moro sent fans and players into a state of shock after the 2013 season when he announced he would be leaving the school after 35 years coaching its football team, 30 of those as head coach. He left to accept a similar position at Poston Butte High School in Florence, leaving behind an incredible record of 319 wins and just 52 losses over three decades at Blue Ridge.
Finding a replacement for Moro turned out to be a difficult task because few coaches were willing to follow a legend, risking being compared to someone who set the bar impossibly high. The school was expected to bring in a coach with a lot of experience, hopefully one with ties to the Blue Ridge program and an understanding of its storied tradition.
Instead, the Yellow Jackets found their new leader in El Paso, Texas. Jacob Belshe wasn’t a Blue Ridge alum, but he did attend high school in the White Mountains, at Round Valley and St. Johns high schools. He played college ball at University of Arizona and UTEP and was working as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Parkland High School in El Paso.
But the part of his resume that gave Blue Ridge fans some serious anxiety was a glaring omission: he had never been a head coach. To them that was like turning the keys to a Lamborghini over to someone who just got his first driving license.
Their concerns were not alleviated when he began his inaugural season with three straight losses, and going on to post a losing season. He left after just one season.
The memories of last year, the first without the only coach that generations of Blue Ridge players had ever known, have begun to fade and are being replaced with a season filled with promise under new head coach, Bob London. Blue Ridge and Show Low are both sporting 5-0 records.
Blue Ridge has been outscoring their opponents 3-to-1 and the Cougars have been even more dominant, outscoring their first five opponents by a combined score of 236 -76. Show Low has been fueled by a junior quarterback, Rhett Ricedorff, the coach’s son, who has already thrown for 1,345 yards, is completing passes at a 69 per cent rate, and has just two interceptions in 107 pass attempts.
However, getting to the Big Game on Oct. 16 still undefeated will be more difficult for Blue Ridge. Show Low plays a couple of teams with a combined record of 4-6, while the Yellow Jackets must get past 4-1 Payson High tonight at home and then beat undefeated Snowflake High School next week on the road.
It would be nice to have a couple of undefeated teams, located just 10 miles apart, playing for the annual bragging rights that are so important to players on each team that have hung out together while growing up. It would be just like the old days.
But if that doesn’t happen, this will still be a big game. Fans from both communities will fill the stands at Blue Ridge, and then fit in another 100 or so that will stand along the fences, and many of the local merchants will close their shops early to get to the game in time.
It will be a special Friday night in small-town Americana, when a game among teenagers once again brings neighbors together to celebrate high school football.
The final score is important, but in the end it’s really secondary to the experience.
…Ya gotta love high school sports.