MENDOTA -- Approach this west side town from any direction and a massive white water tower and set of light standards can't be missed.
They are separated by only a mile, but so much more.
The tower fronts a $250 million federal prison virtually empty of inmates and, more importantly, potential hires from a community dogged with 40% unemployment. Conversely, the lights at Mendota High's stadium illuminate the most remarkable prep football team from Chowchilla to Arvin, breathing Friday night life into this area like never before.
"It's been very uplifting to our community," 16-year City Council member Joseph Riofrio says.
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As the wins have mounted -- a school-record eight straight for an unbeaten team that has outscored the opposition 407-45 with four shutouts -- so has the support.
Suddenly, dropping $4 or $6 for a ticket is more acceptable in a town whose median household income is less than $25,000, with 42% of the population below poverty level, according to the city's website.
That same website's calendar for October apologizes, "Sorry, this month we have no events," yet the Aztecs' last two homefield victories -- particularly in a historic win over Dos Palos -- had cars spilling out of the stadium parking lot, into the streets and down more than a quarter-mile west on Belmont Street to the public biblioteca.
That's Spanish for library and the word is included on a permanent structure out front.
"We insisted on it, and we're the only library in Fresno County that has it," beams Riofrio, the grandson of a Mexican immigrant for whom a downtown street is named.
A third-generation owner of Westside Grocery on Seventh Street, he speaks for a community whose population of 11,014 is 95% Hispanic. And that Hispanic portion actually grows in the 721-student high school (98.6%) and the 37-player varsity football team (100%).
Edgar Segura doesn't run from the percentages like he does defenses.
"Our parents work in the fields -- 99% of them," Mendota's super sophomore says. "That's all we do; we're Mexicans, you know?"
But he makes this clear: "I don't want to work in the sun. My main goal is to go to college and the NFL. And if I don't make it to the NFL, I want to be a P.E. teacher. I want to work in an office with air conditioning."
A two-way starter with 1,409 yards rushing, 27 touchdowns and 13 of 14 conversion kicks after taking over that role the past two weeks, Segura is on track for State Sophomore of the Year honors.
He's fast and strong, has moves and is football savvy -- and, he'll be the first one to say, running behind a great line -- but he will have to beat the odds of his size (5-foot-9, 160 pounds) and history to play college ball.
Many players from Clovis to Bakersfield have earned college football scholarships, but never one in the 18-year history of Mendota.
Then again, never has the program attracted attention like now, especially entering Friday's Battle of Highway 33 at Firebaugh (8-0).
To a man, to a woman, to a player, the answer here is consistent: Robert Mejia, the team's first-year coach.
They call him Beto.
Beto Mejia certainly knows where he draws his own inspiration: Son Isaiah arrived three months premature at 1.7 pounds eight years ago.
"My son fought for his life," Mejia says. "I was 20 years old, working on a college degree and spent seven months at Valley Children's Hospital watching my son grow in an incubator.
"It's built me to be a mentally tough person. Coaching is much easier."
He makes it look that way, with Isaiah -- the team's water boy -- at his side.
Mejia has always made it look that way, actually.
His junior varsity teams at Mendota went 29-1, with 21 shutouts, the past three years.
The varsity, meanwhile, went 6-5, 6-6 and 5-6 under coach Mike Daniel as a groundswell of support built for Mejia to replace him.
"It got a little sticky," Riofrio says. "It's hard in a small town where you try to be friends with everybody. And the Daniel family had an impact in the community developing young players."
Bottom line, however, Riofrio says: "The JV team was the more popular ticket than the varsity."
Technically, school principal Gloria Bolin says, Daniel wasn't fired following the 2010 season, but the job opened.
Mejia and Daniel applied, Mejia won in a close call and Daniel moved on to Mt. Whitney, where he's assisting Marty Martin, the former coach from Mendota neighbor Kerman.
The varsity transition has been seamless for Mejia as the Aztecs -- representing the smallest division (VI) in the section -- opened the season by thundering D-V opponents Fresno Christian (70-0), Caruthers (62-6), Liberty-Madera Ranchos (48-7), Orosi (21-0) and Sierra (47-0).
"Every once in a while," Sierra coach Shannon Pulliam says, "you run into a group like that with no weak links, no pieces of the puzzle missing. They don't hold back; they're kind of on a mission."
It begins during the week, when the players don't so much as cough while taking a knee on their sparkling stadium's artificial surface while being addressed by Mejia, a 2000 graduate of the school: "I tell them don't use Mendota as an excuse, but as motivation that you can succeed from here. I try to turn every negative into a positive."
And it extends through game day on Fridays, when the players can be seen in dress shirts and ties -- a new requirement.
"It's all about Beto," says Bolin, the school's third-year principal and a 28-year employee of the Mendota district, whose high school students attended Tranquillity before 1993.
"A couple of the players said, 'I feel different when I dress like this.' I said, 'Of course you do. You carry yourself differently when you dress like that. It brings a stronger sense of pride; it distinguishes you as a student-athlete.' "
Alfredo Muratalla, a senior standout who plays multiple offensive and defensive positions, says Mejia's command has been well received for a reason: "Trust -- a lot of trust. We respect him as a coach.
"He's the type of coach who will push you, but he will not let you down. He's always there for you."
Adds Segura: "I listen to him like he's my second dad."
Mejia's words struck their deepest at halftime against Dos Palos two weeks ago.
The Aztecs, trailing 22-14, would respond with the most extraordinary two quarters in school history.
For all of Mendota's dominance through the first five games, for all of its dominance on the JV level under Mejia in the previous three seasons, none of it mattered when Dos Palos made its 23-mile march into town from the north on Oct. 14.
The Broncos, one of the winningest programs in state history, not only were 12-0 all-time against the Aztecs, they had won by an average margin of 47 points.
"I wasn't confident," Muratalla says. "I was nervous all day; I was nervous since Thursday."
Some Aztecs fans, unable to witness another loss to the Broncos, even left at halftime, Riofrio says.
But it was then that Mejia played his trump card in the locker room: "I said, 'If my son can fight for his life and I can stay there mentally as a dad and student and continue to go to school and work, you guys being down by a touchdown is nothing.' "
Says Segura: "Best speech ever."
Soon after, he bolted for touchdown runs of 80 and 43 yards on his first two carries of the second half, finishing with six scores in all while charging a 47-3 finish and 61-25 victory.
"The fans went crazy," he says.
Those fans going wild included Bolin, a former Bullard and Fresno State volleyball player. She leaped the retaining wall in front of the bleachers while running to Mendota's sideline in the final minutes.
"It was the most amazing performance I've ever seen," she says.
Living for 16 years east of Clovis, she continues to make 1-hour commutes to the school she insists separates itself from others on the West Side.
And this isn't all about football.
The school captured recent 2010 section titles in baseball and boys soccer, and the district's K-12 chess team won the state.
"There's something special out here in Mendota, and it keeps people like me coming back year after year," she says. "To be honest, I can't put a word around it; there's no description.
"It's a feeling in your heart about people in this community and these students."
Then there are Beto's Boys.
"These kids are letting me have a dream, they're living the dream with me, and I'm glad they're a part of it," Mejia says. "The kids, the school, the community, the groundskeeper, everybody's a part of this success right now.
"It's incredible. It's a true blessing from God. It couldn't be any better."