The mother of all football games for Payson High School takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday when the Longhorns and Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets charge, pumped up and battle-ready, onto the Mesa Community College field to wage gridiron war for the 1998 Class 3A state championship.
The odds-on favorite to walk away with the title is Blue Ridge. The Jackets enter the fray on a state record 64-game winning streak and will be looking to take back to Lakeside the team's fifth consecutive state championship.
As impressive as the Jackets' storied football program is, the Horns boast some fairly impressive credentials themselves -- a 12-0 record, the Central Division championship, a high-octane offense that has scored 466 points and a miserly defense that has given up only 98.
After whipping Safford 27-6 in the state semifinals last Friday, the Horn players and coaching staff hung around the Mesa college stadium long enough to watch Blue Ridge bash Cactus Shadows 46-7 in the other semifinal game.
The Horns returned to Payson nearly convinced they have the team to end the Jackets' reign and earn the Horns their first state championship since 1981.
In Longhorn practices throughout the week, the coaching strategy has focused on stopping Blue Ridge's lightning-quick option attack, led by running back Robert David and quarterback Nate Jackson.
The key to successfully containing the duo will rest in the Horns' defensive line charge.
If the D-line, led by Blair River, Jason Hilgendorf and Mike Barker, can control the line of scrimmage and keep Jacket linemen, especially the tight end, off linebackers Jimbo Armstrong and Ryan Lorentz, Payson can throttle David and Jackson.
But if the Horns' D-line gets whooped and the blockers get to the 'backers, hindering Armstrong and Lorentz from reading and running free, Payson could be in for a long evening.
At Tuesday's practice, River said he's ready for the challenge of taking on the vaunted Jacket offensive line.
Also during the practice week, the Longhorns set their sights on fine-tuning their own power-option offense that features a rock-solid up-front line anchored by center Bryan Zumbro.
Junior running back Tim Bunting is the Horns' leading offensive threat, having piled up 952 yards rushing and 49 receiving.
Fullback/tailback Cable Morris, who missed several games due to an injury, has 584 yards rushing and 112 receiving. As important as his offensive contributions are, Morris has also been a superb blocker, leading the way for quarterback Hunter Walden and Bunting.
Another key to victory could rest on the arm of Walden. If he can loosen the Blue Ridge defenders by hooking up with tight end Marc Bennett, Z-back Josh Barnhart or a wide receiver, the running attack will find easier sledding.
PHS offensive coordinator Curt LaBlanc hasn't opted often to have Walden throw on first down, mainly because the Horns' running attack has been so potent. But is throwing on 1st and 10 in the cards for Blue Ridge?
We'll know Saturday evening.
Also on the practice front, Matt Rauh, the Horns' offensive coordinator last year who moved from Payson to near Denver, Colo., returned to help the Horns prepare for Saturday's battle. Rauh says he has an investment in the team and would like to see it do well.
To Saturday's winner goes the spoils of victory and the privilege of proudly declaring -- maybe someday to grandchildren -- "I'm a state champion."
To the losers goes the heartbreak of defeat and the life-long burden of having fallen short of a cherished goal.
The state championship game -- it's why young men play football.