One of the advantages of attending a small-town high school is the camaraderie that evolves inside close-knit sports teams and the spirited competition between schools.
An eighth-grade student athlete at Gililland Junior High in Tempe School District can choose to attend Tempe High, Corona del Sol, Marcos de Niza, Mountain Pointe, Desert Vista, possibly McClintock or maybe opt for Phoenix St. Marys or Brophy.
Once in high school, city dwelling athletes are exposed to an almost entirely new set of teammates. Foes often go unrecognized until the students are juniors or seniors.
But in Payson, many of the athletes are together for six, seven and eight years.
With Rim Country Middle School now competing in the White Mountain League -- the high school equivalent of the East Division -- Payson's opponents remain basically unchanged from seventh to 12th grades.
The intimate setting of Northern and Central Arizona small-school sports sets the stage for Saturday night's elite Class 3A state championship football game.
Blue Ridge and Payson players are no strangers to one another.
They met last year when Blue Ridge salvaged a 20-14 state quarterfinal victory.
But for the nucleus of both teams, the rivalry can be traced to the opening game of the 1994 White Mountain League junior high/middle school season.
The Mavericks were playing in the school's first tackle football game. Actually, it was a controlled scrimmage in which skeptics were keeping score to see how the new kids on the block would fare against a seasoned champion.
Only months before the contest, the PUSD district governing board -- united by the efforts of member Jimmy Connolly -- agreed to sanction tackle football at RCMS.
WML officials reluctantly accepted the school's application for membership, bemusing the league was already too large and lengthy travel to Payson from the White Mountains was a burden.
Blue Ridge, a long-time WML tough guy, had built a history of fielding championship-quality teams since the early 1970s.
In late August 1994 on the Payson High School field, a nervous and tentative group of RCMS eighth-graders took to the field against BRJH.
Because Payson was a struggling newcomer in the league, few expected the team to succeed.
No tradition, no history, no seasoned players and a stepchild upbringing breeds little success, said the soothsayers.
What was to come
At quarterback, 14-year-old Hunter Walden was firmly in control of the Maverick offense. His long-time friend, Nate Jackson -- who had moved from Payson two years earlier -- engineered BR.
Cable Morris, wearing his familiar jersey number 22 started in the backfield for RCMS, Robert David was a promising back for BR.
Early in the clash, Blue Ridge jumped ahead by three touchdowns. After a shaky start, RCMS steadied its footing and rallied late for a one TD lead.
On the last play of the contest, the Mavericks owned possession of the ball inside BR's one-yard line.
Conventional football wisdom dictated Walden put his knee down, end the game, and allow the Mavs to strut away satisfied with their rookie accomplishments.
But one of the two RCMS coaches, Scott Veach -- only two years earlier an All-PAC-10 tight end for the ASU Sun Devils -- believed it was destiny for the Mavericks to go for the score.
"Make a statement right here," Veach told the team as if he was rubbing a crystal ball predicting the teams would meet four years later for the state high school championship.
On that final play, Walden barked the count, elevated and threw a short spiral to tight end Ryan Lorentz on an out pattern. Falling face first into the turf, Lorentz corralled the ball just as the final horn sounded.
Veach, who left Payson a few months later, is now an officer on the Chandler Police Department and a father.
This season, he's religiously followed the Horns run to glory in the newspapers.
Veach will be taking a day off from his law enforcement to visit a team practice early this week. The officer, who once charged into Sun Devil Stadium in front of 70,000 frenzied fans, says he can't wait to reunite with his former middle school players.
"They were a special team," he said. "I always believed they would do great things."