Shunning aside a listless first half in which they appeared uninterested, the Payson Longhorns rallied in the final two quarters to salvage a 22-14 victory over the Show Low Cougars in a state tournament quarterfinal game Friday at Mesa College.
Throughout most of the 1998 campaign, the state second-ranked and Central Division Horns (11-0) have jumped on opponents early. After building sizable leads, PHS reserves were herded onto the field for mop-up action.
But against Show Low (9-2) -- which entered the game as the fourth-ranked East Division runner-up -- Payson found itself in the most unfamiliar position of trailing at half-time.
A 28-yard run by Cougar Garrett Johnson with 6:19 remaining in the second quarter and a three-yard jaunt by Tyler Ries less than a minute before half-time lifted the cats to a 14-9 half-time cushion.
Payson's only scores came on a one-yard dash by quarterback Hunter Walden with 3:42 to play in the second and a 33-yard field goal toed by Josh Barnhart just as the half-time horn sounded.
After a lethargic first half of play, the Horns returned to the Mesa field with a newfound enthusiasm.
"They played with a lot more emotion. It was like a different team out there," Horns assistant coach Jack Morris said.
Payson took its first lead of the ball game, 15-14, with 7:50 to go in the third on a two-yard run by Walden.
The two-point conversion pass failed and Payson had to settle for a slim one-point lead.
Because the Payson defense had adjusted at halftime to corral the Cougars' offensive offerings, a single point would have been sufficient for a Payson "W."
In the first half, Show Low was content picking up chunks of yardage on sweep plays out of a "trips" (three wide receiver) formation in which the entire playside of the SL offensive line pulled and a wide receiver down blocked on the Horns outside defender.
It was that play Johnson scored on during the second quarter.
In the second half, defensive coordinator Mike Wheelis adjusted his bandits by asking both Horns safeties Brian Cork and Jeremy Hoff to provide more run support and worry less about pass and gimmick plays out of the formation.
The move rendered the once-vaunted Cougar Wing-T offense totally ineffective.
Led by nose guard Blair River, defensive tackle Mike Barker and inside linebacker Jimbo Armstrong, the Horns defense continually stuffed second-half run attempts.
Wheelis cited the trio's second-half play, along with that of the safeties, as huge contributors to the victory.
Unable to execute the inside trap successfully, Cougars coach Bill Morgan had little foundation to build the remainder of his offensive scheme on.
When Ries, the cat quarterback went looking for Cougar connections in desperation, the Horns secondary responded with two interceptions and only six completion's for just 91 yards.
With the defense corralling the Cougars, the Horns offense frosted more icing onto victory cake early in the fourth quarter. A four-yard run by Walden and a conversion kick by Barnhart pushed Payson to the eight-point victory and a berth in the state semi-finals.
Walden's scoring run was his third of the game and 12th of the season.
In addition to the TDs, Walden rushed for 24 yards on 10 attempts and was 10 of 18 through the airways for 142 yards.
It was another efficient and highly commendable outing that Payson fans have come to expect with the talented signal caller.
The performance also had to be a bit of redemption for Walden who, as an untested sophomore quarterback three years ago, took a brutal pounding during Show Low's lopsided victory.
"They beat me up that game, sacked me a bunch of times," Walden said.
The rest of the offense
Walden's favorite target Friday evening, senior flanker Josh Barnhart, was on the receiving end of five offerings for 110 yards.
The most important snags came in the crucial third quarter turn-around when Barnhart hauled in passes of 32 and 36 yards -- both on flag routes --to help keep Horn drives alive.
"I just happened to be the one that got open and Hunter put the ball right there," Barnhart said.
Bulling for 65 yards on 16 attempts, senior fullback Cable Morris led the Payson ground game that finished with 179 yards.
The difference in the Horns effort in the second half, Morris said, was attitude. "I think all of the seniors realized if we didn't come back and win this, we would never play a high school football game again," he said. "We didn't want (the season) to end there."
Junior tailback Timmy Bunting piled up 47 yards and Barnhart contributed 34 yards.
One to go before state championship clash
A single hurdle remains before the Payson Longhorns football team reaches the Class 3A state championship shoot-out.
At 5 p.m. Friday on the campus of Mesa College, the Horns will take on Safford in a state tournament semi-final clash.
Payson advanced to the final four with a 22-14 victory over Show Low. Safford, a South division representative, reached the semi-finals with 34-7 win over Parker.
Both games were played Nov. 13 at Mesa.
The other semi-final game -- to be played at 8 p.m. Friday at Mesa -- will pit four-time defending state champion Blue Ridge against rapidly improving Cactus Shadows.
Cactus, the Central Division third-place finisher, advanced in the tournament with Friday's 34-6 win over Ganado.
Blue Ridge struggled against Central runner-up Coolidge but survived the scare with a 19-16 win.
The winners of the semi-final clashes will meet at 7 p.m. Nov. 28 at Mesa for the 1998 Class 3A state championship.