Push aside Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal, Texas vs. Texas A&M and Army vs. Navy, the most anxiously awaited game of the 1998 season for small-town Arizona football fans is on the agenda for 7 p.m. Saturday evening at Mesa College.
The clash pits state No. 1 ranked Blue Ridge against second-ranked Payson in the state 3A championship finale. Both teams enter with 11-0 records and division championship credentials -- Payson in the Central Division and Blue Ridge in the East.
It's has been more than a year since Payson snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a 20-14 quarterfinal state tournament loss to Blue Ridge. During the span, football fans have eagerly looked forward to a return match between the two powerhouses.
Few teams have tested Blue Ridge as well as the Longhorns did that November 1997 afternoon on the campus of Mesa College.
Primed for the upset
The Horns took an early 7-0 lead and dominated play most of the first half.
But by turning an errant long snap on a punt attempt -- which sailed over Payson punter Josh Barnhart's outstretched hands -- into a touchdown only minutes before half-time, the Jackets rallied to survive the upset threat.
Some departed the game saying Payson should have emerged victorious.
Bob Halenar, a star member of Payson's last and only state championship football team of 1981, declared his alma mater was the better team and had it not been for a couple of crucial mistakes, Payson would have ended Blue Ridges' then 49-game winning streak.
After edging Payson, Blue Ridge went on to collect it's fourth-consecutive state championship and enters Friday's game majestically riding a state-record 64-game winning streak.
The streak doesn't mean the Jackets haven't been tested.
In a state quarterfinal game played Nov. 14, BR had to come from behind and then stave off a late Bear rally to beat Central runner-up Coolidge 19-16. If comparative scores are a valid prognosticator, Payson nipped the Bears 14-7 in regular season play.
Another common opponent, Cactus Shadows felt the Horns' wrath 32-0 Sept. 25. Last Friday at Mesa in a state semifinal match, Cactus bowed to the Blue Ridge victory skein in a 47-6 loss.
Each time an aspiring team like Payson, Coolidge or Arizona Boys Ranch tries to put a clamp on Blue Ridge's winning ways, the Jackets miraculously muster the will to win.
Before a standing-room-only crowd last year in the state championship at Mesa, BR survived 27-21 over highly talented Arizona Boys Ranch.
In the 1996 state final, the Jackets kicked a field goal with only seconds remaining to beat ABR 22-20.
Dynasties of years past
Not since the 1970s -- when Eloy was the king of the high school hill with talented running backs Mossy and Mike Cade -- has a team dominated 3A football like Blue Ridge.
In the 1960s, it was again Eloy playing the role of gridiron conquerors with future college stars Paul Ray Powell, Art Malone and Benny Malone in the Dust Devil lineup.
In the 1990s, though, it's been all Blue Ridge. Coach Paul Moro -- since taking over the reigns of the Jacket program in 1984 -- has led the school to a 144-24-0 mark.
Today's stars include former Payson resident Nate Jackson, who's quarterbacked the BR offense for the past three seasons. Since leaving Payson for Lakeside in 1993, Jackson has remained friends with several Payson players.
Those friendships will be put on the back burner for a few precious hours Saturday evening.
Senior running back Robert David is not big at 5 foot, 9 inches and 175 pounds, but is considered one of the best at his position in the 3A conference.
Up front, the Jacket linemen -- as always -- rely on speed, quickness and technique to get the all-important blocking assignments executed.
Unlike Payson, which uses most of its players on only one side of the ball, Moro asks several of his athletes to play both offense and defense.
Is a win in the cards?
Can the Horns pull off the biggest upset in the history of 3A football and cap their season with a state championship win over the Jackets?
In the White Mountains, they're saying "no-way" -- Blue Ridge has simply forgotten how to lose.
In the Rim country, fans are confident this is the team to finally put an end to Blue Ridge's mystique.
A victory would be sweet for Payson faithful who have steadfastly cheered the team through a banner year but have always kept in the back of their minds another visit with the Jackets.
A triumph would wash the bitter taste of 1997's stinging loss from the mouths of Horn fans.
But only one team will walk away from Saturday's clash with a "W" in it's won-loss column and a state trophy in hand.
Only time will tell which one it will be.