San Clemente may be a big city now, but it still has just one high school. And every year it indulges in a small-town ritual that has disappeared in most of Orange County: a homecoming parade through downtown.
Hundreds are expected to line the parade route, all of two blocks long, today just before 3 p.m. to cheer their children, their grandchildren, neighbors, brothers and sisters. It's like a family reunion all weekend, with football, a dance and a homecoming queen who has dreamed of this magical moment.
Past barbershops, restaurants and gift shops will go the convertibles with the candidates for homecoming king and queen, cheerleaders on an antique fire engine, and one of San Clemente High Principal Charles "Chuck" Hinman's favorites: the Best Buddies group, mentors for physically and mentally disabled youngsters in the community, marching together.
And no matter how many new homes are built in this seaside city of 55,000-plus, this remains Triton territory. There's just one allegiance: to San Clemente High. Black and red rule.
Many of San Clemente High's teachers are graduates of the school. A lot of merchants along Avenida Del Mar went to San Clemente, and many of the students have brothers, sisters or parents who went there. It's small-town -- big-time.
The parade "doesn't last very long," said Alicia Allen, who owns a barbershop on Del Mar, "but everybody wants to see their kids marching, waving. We get real excited."
Marissa Edler, one of the five finalists for homecoming queen, is in shock at the prospect that her dream as a little girl might come true. She has been coming to the homecoming parade since she was 5, and "I remember looking at all the floats and thinking how cool it would be to be a princess. That's like every little girl's dream."
Her sister was homecoming queen two years ago, and now she is excited at the prospect that she might also wear the crown.
She was in the activities center the day before the parade, and all around her students scurried with paintbrushes, scissors and jars of glitter, making the last of the signs and banners for the weekend.
Gau Elam, junior class president, thought that when he got involved with the group that works on school events such as homecoming, it would be "a joke. I thought we just sat around and ate candy."
But he found out that the Associated Student Body works hard on school dances, the prom and pep rallies. But nothing at the 2,850-student campus is as important as homecoming, he said.
"It's the biggest thing of the whole year," because it involves everyone, all the school teams, groups, city officials.
"The whole town revolves around our homecoming and the parade," said junior Hillary Hodges. "It's not just students. It's the whole community."
Adair Hendrickson didn't miss a brush stroke on the sign she was painting as she explained that homecoming has been fixed in the students' minds for months. Since August, actually, during the high school's Associated Student Body camp at UC Santa Barbara.
At the center of it all, keeping things on schedule, is Meaghan Kanoy, the activities director. About 5,000 students, parents, guests and visitors will be watching what she and her crew have cooked up this year.
The theme is Homecoming to the Rescue, and each class has chosen superheroes for each of the four floats: Superman, Batman, Super Mario Brothers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The floats are hidden in warehouses until parade time to make sure no one from this year's rival, Capistrano Valley High, can do them any harm.
The route will take them along Avenida Del Mar from El Camino Real to Calle Seville.
Kanoy's "Friday list" is due to start today at 6:45 a.m., when she picks up bagels and juice for the student workers, and end at 8:30 p.m., when the floats and cars for the halftime show are to be driven onto the field. In between are 21 tasks that need to come off without a hitch.
Kanoy slumped in her chair, just for a second. That was all the rest she could afford. Then it was back to the activities room to check on the backdrops, making sure everyone knew their place and their task for the big day.
Then she voiced the one big fear. She's been monitoring the weather reports and prays that it won't rain on her parade.