Longhorns Win State Championship

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The stage was set for Blue Ridge to repeat another heroic come-from-behind effort that led to a number-one ranking, state-record 64-game winning streak and four consecutive state championships.

Trailing underdog Payson 29-20 and the state championship game clock winding down to less than three minutes, all-state quarterback Nate Jackson -- as he has done the past three seasons -- was engineering the Yellow Jackets on a disciplined march towards the Horn goal.

General Grant's Civil War march on Richmond seemed to pale in comparison.

A touchdown, successful onside kick and field goal in the final minutes of the clash played Saturday at Mesa College would lift BR to yet another state crown.

Spirited comebacks of such unparalleled proportions are unheard of in most high school football programs. But this was the mighty Yellow Jackets -- a team unbeatable the past four seasons no matter what the odds. A team that produced linebacker Scooter Sprotte who only one day earlier had led the University of Arizona to a possible-Rose Bowl clinching victory over rival Arizona State.

More luster was shined onto the Jackets' myth during a practice-week claim by coach Paul Moro that his team might be divinely inspired.

Blue Ridge, some said, was capable of rising from the gridiron ashes just when it appeared all was lost.

What happened?
On fourth down, from inside the Horns 30-yard line and the game on the line, Jackson -- who had completed three of four passes on the final drive -- uncorked an aerial towards the sideline where a receiver was feverishly working to free himself from Horn D-back Jeremy Hoff.

Only seconds after Jackson released, Hoff sprinted towards the sideline and dove face mask first into the turf. With arms outstretched, Hoff gingerly caressed the toss as referees signaled "interception, first down Payson."

The overflow Payson crowd and Horn sidelines erupted in jubilation.

But the celebration was premature.
A little more than two minutes remained on the game clock and the Horns desperately needed a first down to retain possession to keep the ball out of the hands of the high-powered BR offense.

After all, this was Blue Ridge and miracles are a way of football life.

With their backs against the goal line and the crowd noise filling up Mesa like a rock concert, Horns signal caller Hunter Walden -- who rushed for 119 yards -- stepped up.

Behind a determined offensive line -- that had thrived on a yeoman-like effort from guard Ty Hurlburt -- Walden ripped off runs of six, four, five and five yards to pick up a first down and deny Blue Ridge last-gasp shot at the Horn goal.

On the contest's dramatic final two plays, Walden took the snaps from center Bryan Zumbro, stepped back and kneed the ground. As the final seconds ticked away, a Blue Ridge legacy that first began in 1994 was swished away into the history books.

Like the wicked witch, the Jacket streak is ding-dong dead, left only for future high school teams to envy.

It was sweet
The win, Zumbro -- a PHS junior said, -- is "what we've been working for, been wanting."

Zumbro and running back Tim Bunting -- obviously mentally and physically drained -- watched teammates at game's end enthusiastically dog pile one another.

Senior fullback Cable Morris reveled at the celebration saying "It's the best thing that has ever happened to us, we are on the top of the world." The slugfest, he added, "was the most intense thing that any of us has ever experienced."

Senior Z-back Josh Barnhart, who decided to stay in Payson to be with the team four years ago when his parents moved, said "(The championship) is something we have been working for since eighth grade, it's a once in a lifetime experience."

The upset of Blue Ridge wraps up the 1998 campaign that began in earnest early last August with the much-dreaded twice-a-day practice sessions. Before that, there were summer passing leagues and weight-lifting sessions.

On the rugged, twisting road to the championship which some players couldn't maneuver, the Horns finished 13-0, won the Central Division title and captured the school's second state football crown.

The rocky journey was particularly fulfilling for the seniors.

After a heart-breaking 20-14 loss to Blue Ridge in the 1997 state tournament quarterfinals, the then-juniors returned to Payson saying they wouldn't again be denied.

They weren't.
Longhorn championship video tapes available

Videotapes of the Payson Longhorns' championship game against Blue Ridge are available from a Scottsdale company.

Bob West of Sports Cassette Productions said his videotape includes play-by-play coverage of the game and interviews with coaches and players at the end of the game.

He said his company is contracted through the Arizona Interscholastic Association to tape state championship games.

For information about ordering a copy of the tape, contact Sports Cassette Productions, P.O. Box 3421, Scottsdale, AZ 85271, or call (602) 990-2115.

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