Homecomings represent bizarre days for frenzied high school football coaches scrambling for a bit of normalcy.
These rites of autumn are out of the ordinary because players are more often focused on the crowning of royalty, pep assemblies, after-game dances, parades, class competitions, bon fires and dress-up spirit days rather than about the winning the game.
Homecomings have turned many a coach’s thick locks of hair to gray and thinning.
Tonight’s homecoming showdown against Eloy Santa Cruz — kickoff is 7 p.m. in Longhorn stadium — could turn even more wacky and madcap than usual.
It’s a possibility because the Longhorns are wallowing in a dismal 1-3 season, coming off a horribly lackluster showing in last week’s 34-6 loss to the Round Valley Elks, and rumors of player discontent are swelling on the PHS campus.
It’s a given in Longhorn land the gridiron ship is listing and someone — first-year coach Matt Mayo, his staff or the veteran players must do something to right it.
If not, kiss the season goodbye.
A victory is almost always the elixir the doctor orders to cure team discord.
Thankfully, mediocre Santa Cruz might be the team that can give the defending state champion Longhorns a healthy dose of confidence.
SC is 2-2 overall and, in the last two weeks, has lost to Fountain Hills, but rebounded to beat lowly Parker 35-6.
In the 1970s and 80s, Eloy was a prep football powerhouse, churning out collegiate and professional stars like Benny and Art Malone. After leaving Eloy, Benny starred for ASU, then spent five years with the Miami Dolphins and two with the Washington Redskins.
Art, his older brother, also played at Arizona State, then went on to play five years for the Atlanta Falcons and two for the Philadelphia Eagles.
While the days of spewing out professional players are over for the Dust Devils, the Silver and Scarlet continue to have the overall team speed that fueled teams of past decades.
The challenge for PHS defensive coordinator Byron Quinlan’s bandits against Eloy will be to contain the offense and not allow any long runs to be broken, especially sweeps.
On defense, coach Al Ocampo — a veteran of 30 seasons — has two of the finest linebackers in the state at his disposal.
Major Harris is a 6-foot, 1-inch, 250-pound senior, and Ricky Cortez is a 6-foot, 1-inch 230-pound junior. On offense, Harris plays “Z” or wingback and Cortez is a wide receiver.
The Dust Devils return five starters off last year’s 5-6 team.
The key to victory for Payson is to put the season’s differences and spats in the rear-view mirror and focus on a complete effort on both sides of the ball and special teams.
The Longhorns must also crank up the running game that picked up only a miniscule 38 yards on the ground in the loss to Round Valley.
Which means the big guys up front, led by tough guys Mason Ducanay and Shaffer Keith, must control the line of scrimmage and open holes for running backs Nick Johnson and Brandon Alexander as well as quarterback Westin Gibson.
The good news about homecoming is that Payson Herring, a standout running back and kick returner on last year’s undefeated season, has joined the team and is expected to play against Eloy.
His speed and explosiveness will give the Horns another weapon in an arsenal that has been misfiring most of the season.
If the Eloy linebackers are as good as billed, Gibson might be called upon to air the ball out, which means there must be significant improvement in the aerial game from what was shown in Round Valley.
Against the Elks, the Horns had only 30 yards through the airways and two passes were intercepted, one of which was returned for a TD.
Although tonight’s game is an important one for Longhorn fortunes, it’s also meaningful for the gridiron mystique of the East region.
The East has long dominated 3A football, and is considered the premier and most competitive region in the state.
Maintaining that stranglehold on the rest of small-school Arizona is a goal of almost every coach, player, fan and booster in the East.
Losing to Eloy, a South region team, would be a blow to the East’s aura.