The sudden shock and disruption of a hazing scandal that rocked the tradition-rich Hamilton High School football program 19 months ago has passed.
But the pain lingers, as the fall-out from that scandal has crippled a program that once dominated big-school football in Arizona.
The sudden decline of the Huskies football program on the field is a constant reminder of how fragile success can be at the high school level, where coaches are tasked with monitoring the exploits of youngsters working their way through their formative teen years.
Steve Belles, who was in charge of the Huskies’ program when the hazing allegations broke, is no longer with the program, put on a leave of absence at the time and replaced by his assistant, Dick Baniszweski, who served as head coach on an interim basis last season.
Baniszweski posted a respectable 8-4 record last season, but the school went out of state to find a new permanent coach. The job opening had no shortage of applications as more than 50 applications poured in from seven different states with aspirants eager to take over a program that is regularly included in the national rankings.
Hamilton has won seven state big-school titles in the last 14 years, but has stumbled badly in the big games in recent years. A scandal of major proportions that has resulted in player transfers was the last thing the program needed.
Mike Zdebski, a 30-year coaching veteran, was hired away from a Michigan high school where he had been for the last 23 years. He won a couple of state championships during his time at Walled Lake Western.
But Zdebski is off to a rocky start in his new job, losing his first two games as his team built a 3-6 record. This year’s squad has become the first Hamilton team to suffer six losses in a season and is likely to earn another dubious distinction: the first team to fail to make the playoffs.
The Huskies are coming off three straight losses as they prepare for tonight’s final regular-season contest, this one against their cross-town rival, Chandler High.
Hopes for ending the season on a high note are extremely dim. Chandler comes into the game with an 8-1 record, unbeaten by a local team. The Wolves’ only loss this season was to a California team in the season opener.
Chandler has won its last three games by a combined score of 180-21 and put up 62 points in each of the last two.
From a psychological standpoint, Hamilton is hardly in a good place as it prepares for tonight’s game. The Huskies got routed by Perry High School last week, 63-28, on their home field, in front of a fan base hoping for some kind of late-season miracle. Tonight’s game is at home again, and the result could be similarly embarrassing.
Perry (7-2) is the No. 6-ranked team in the 6A Conference. Chandler is No. 1.
In the opening minutes of last week’s game, Perry established its superiority when running back Jalen Young used a 74-yard touchdown run to draw first blood on the way to a 103-yard performance. Perry QB Chubba Purdy led the offense to a 19-0 lead in the first quarter and finished the night with 364 all-purpose yards.
It has been a long season for a proud program not used to losing more games than it wins.
Tonight’s game will probably feel like the longest game of a long season.