CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. (AP) _ On the eve of the big high school football game, excitement ran high in this working-class desert town of stucco mini-malls between the much richer Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage.

Then came the news: Three popular coaches for Cathedral City High School were killed when their Jeep Wrangler went off a remote road in the early-morning darkness Thursday.

The accident left the city and the school's 2,000 students numb.

``Everybody was getting all pumped up for the game and it was, like, I couldn't believe it,'' 17-year-old senior Tim Bohan, a linebacker on the varsity squad, said Friday. ``I didn't know what to think. We were real close.''

Crisis counselors were called in. Students walked the halls in a daze. Some called in sick. The Friday night playoff game was hastily rescheduled for Saturday afternoon.

For the 44 young players _ many from lower-middle-class families, many Hispanic _ the accident took away three friends and confidantes and left them struggling to prepare for the most important game of their lives.

The team was gathered in the school auditorium when the news was broken Thursday morning, hours after the accident.

Killed were freshman head coach and math teacher Steven Wilson, 44, and assistant freshman coaches Robert Grenville, 35, and Eric Metz, 24. Grenville was a school security guard and Metz taught physical education.

Their convertible Jeep ran off a road and rolled over several times. Nine unopened beer cans and two empty ones were found, but it wasn't known whether the two cans was consumed or leaked in the crash.

Metz was the driver, and his blood will be tested for alcohol, police said. All were wearing seat belts, but the force of the crash was just too much.

The crash was under investigation and it was unknown why the coaches were out so late. Several teachers speculated it was a celebration: Metz's birthday was Friday, while Wilson's would have been Monday.

Varsity Coach Rich Baughman told the players how much the coaches meant to everybody and asked the team to remember them for all the good things they did.

His remarks couldn't ease the pain.

``It certainly knocked our feet out right from under us,'' Baughman said. ``It just made it impossible to focus on anything to do with the game.''

It's an important one: Cathedral City vs. Victor Valley, in Victorville, a three-hour bus ride away, in what Cathedral City hopes will be the school's first win in the opening round of the playoffs.

Not just the school was looking forward to the game. The community was too. Nearly 2,000 fans routinely fill the new stadium on Dinah Shore Drive _ the entertainer had a home in the area _ to support the Lions.

Nate Davenport, 17, a star tight end who is being recruited by big colleges, said he is going about his business as best he can in what could be his last high school game Saturday.

``We're going to have a meeting pretty soon to talk, just trying to overcome this right here and still come through,'' Davenport said.

There are plenty of tough times ahead. Among them is the awards banquet for the players, originally set for next week, but now postponed.

``There aren't any freshmen coaches to give out awards,'' Baughman said. ``That's when it's going to hit.''