Longhorn football players -- reveling in the accomplishments of the past season -- are eagerly reaping the rewards of an undefeated campaign and the school's first gridiron state championship since 1981.
The first of what is sure to be a long list of plaudits came last week when the All-Central Division team was announced. Fourteen PHS players were selected to either the first or second offensive and defensive teams.
It was the most PHS players chosen all-division since the '81 campaign.
More laurels could arrive this week when the Class 3A All-State results are announced. That team was chosen by a panel of three coaches including former Round Valley coach Tot Workman, former Coolidge coach Larry Delbridge and Mesa Red Mountain assistant Dan Dunn.
Dunn coached the Longhorns from 1992 to 1994.
Other honors the senior Payson players might look forward to include being tapped to participate in next summer's Arizona Coaches Association North vs. South All-Star game at Eastern Arizona College.
Selections for that game will be by ACA members Dec. 12 at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe.
Also next summer, Arizona All-Star teams will be making trips to Australia to compete in cultural exchange games. Players for those teams are issued invitations bases on character, integrity and playing ability.
The athletes however, must pay their own travel expenses.
As postseason honors continue to roll in, a limited few seniors are also being courted by colleges interested in acquiring their services.
Highlighting the crowning of All-Central team for the Horns growing legion of jubilant fans was the selection of quarterback Hunter Walden as the division's Player of the Year.
About every complimentary gridiron adjective that can be leveled towards a quarterback has been tossed the strong-armed senior's way.
As Payson's field general for the past three years, he was equally adept at running the Horns power option offense as he was taking a five-step drop and delivering a pass.
His frequent flyer credentials include 77 completions in 144 attempts for 438 yards. Accuracy was never questioned -- he was intercepted only five times during the year.
When running the ball, Walden rambled for 485 yards on 89 attempts. The mark also carries a sterling 5.4-per-carry average.
As flattering as it is, his naming as Central's POY could be only the first of a long list of awards yet to come.
It will come as a surprise to none -- except maybe a few diehards in the White Mountains -- if Walden is soon named the Class 3A conference's Player of the Year.
Ironically, his biggest rival for the honor is long-time friend and BR quarterback Nate Jackson.
The All-Central teams
In addition to receiving the division's most prestigious award, Walden joined Ty Hulbert, Jordan Siverson, Marc Bennett, and Josh Barnhart on the All-Central First Team Offense.
Representing Payson on the All-Division First Team Defense are Mike Barker, Cade Bradley, Jimbo Armstrong, Jeremy Hoff and Barnhart.
Second team offense selections include Tim Bunting and Cable Morris.
On the second team defense are Justin Davis, Ryan Lorentz and Brian Cork.
Stars on "O"
First-teamers Hulbert and Siverson anchored a Horn offensive line that dominated the line of scrimmage in almost every PHS victory. The "O" line's superiority sometimes went unnoticed but it was never more evident than in the second half of the state championship win over Blue Ridge Nov. 28.
Behind Hulbert and Siverson, the line efficiently shielded Walden while prying running space for Horn backs.
The Jacket defense, obviously fatigued, battered and bruised by Payson's ramrod, in-your-face advances eventually succumbed to Hulbert, Siverson and friends.
The accomplishment, Hulbert says, was the highlight of his two years on the Horn varsity.
Bennett, a tight end, began his football career as a guard but coaches switched him early in his high school career because of his good speed, size and blocking ability.
In 1998, he finished with 14 receptions for 364 yards. His 28.0 yards-per-catch average was one of the best in the division.
Barnhart was tapped to the first offense as a place kicker. As the Horns leading scorer (107 points) he booted 39 of 49 conversion attempts. Barnhart's was also the team's leading receiver (22 catches) from his Z-back, or flanker position.
As a second team offensive selection, Bunting was the Horns leading rusher (1004 yards) and second leading scorer (102).
Morris, a senior, alternated playing time at fullback and tailback. He finished as the second leading ground gainer (628 yards) despite missing three games with an injury. In addition to his ball-carrying duties, he was considered one of the best blocking backs in the division.
First team defense
Coach Mike Wheelis' bandits were a stingy bunch in 1998 giving up only 118 points over the course of the 13-game season. Three of the games were shut-outs and opponents were held to seven or less points in a trio of other contests.
The statistics might have been even more overwhelming had the Horn staff not substituted freely late in the games giving opponents the easier task of scoring against Horn reserves.
One of the most accomplished of the bandits was senior tackle Mike Barker.
Fans marveled at his feats all season long but his most celebrated moment came in the final stages of the state championship just as Jackson -- the Jacket signal caller -- was struggling to rally his troops.
Behind the protection of his line, Jackson peered down the field searching for a receiver. As Jackson cocked to throw, the 200-plus pound Barker broke free and charged downfield like an uncaged lion grasping for freedom.
The Payson strongman lifted, grunted and tossed the helpless Jackson onto the Mesa College turf for a seven-yard loss.
For onlookers, the pinning was strikingly similar to many of the take-downs Barker has executed during his heralded three-year wrestling career that culminated last year in a state championship.
Junior defensive end Cade Bradley also turned in a remarkable year playing one of the most demanding positions possible in the Horns 52 monster defense.
Bradley's responsibilities included knocking the tight end off pass routes, stopping the power sweeps and taking on blockers in the form of pulling guards and hard-hitting fullbacks.
Statistically, junior Jimbo Armstrong was the Horns premier defender in 1998.
From his inside linebacker position, he led the team in total tackles despite missing a game with an injury. Armstrong was also effective on blitzs and stunts breaking up pass attempts, counters and traps.
With a year of eligibility remaining, he could become one of the best linebackers in the state next season.
The Horns rode the defensive exploits of a bevy of heroes to the state championship win but none were more crucial than those of defensive back Jeremy Hoff.
In the waning moments of the state championship when the Jackets were scratching for a rally, Hoff came up with a pass deflection and an interception that thrust a dagger into the heart of Blue Ridge.
Hoff ended the campaign as the team interception leader with eight.
The selection of Barnhart to the first team defense as a punter was made possible by a sterling effort that included a 35.2 yards per kick average. On kickoffs, he finished with a 55.2 average.
During his two years as the varsity punter and kicker, he was one of the most consistent in the 3A conference.
On the second team defense, Davis was chosen as a tackle, Lorentz as a linebacker and Cork at defensive back.
All three were among team leaders in tackles, quarterback hurries and fumbles caused.
One more time
The Horn players and their families will gather at 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Mazatzal Casino to celebrate the state championship and award varsity letters.
Also, coach Jim Beall said, an open house for the public is in the planning stages. When details are finalized they will be announced, he said.