State Champs

Seniors fulfill 5-year-old goal

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For at least 14 senior members of the Payson High School Longhorn football team, Saturday's stirring 29-20 upset of the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets represented more than a state championship.

It was the culmination of a goal and the fulfillment of a dream that was born more than four years ago but had the seeds planted even before then.

After successful stints in Northern Arizona Football Youth play, today's seniors became the first tackle football team at Rim Country Middle School in the fall of 1994.

Participating in the White Mountain League, the eighth-graders finished 8-0 and won the league championship.

Only days after the gun sounded in the final game, players, coaches, fans, teachers and parents were characterizing this team as the next PHS state championship squad.

It was a heavy burden to shoulder, but the players reveled in it.

Their dedication was never more obvious than late in the school year when almost all of the players chose to sacrifice their precious after-school hours and participate in a spring football program.

Spring football for eighth-graders? It was unheard of.

Months earlier, during Christmas vacation, many traveled to Tempe to participate in a free football clinic put on by the Fiesta Bowl.

The players seemingly couldn't get enough of the sport.

As freshmen, the squad compiled a 5-2 record and was confident enough to don shirts inscribed "State Champs on the Horizon."

The athletes agreed there was little doubt they would someday be state champions.

In 1996, as untested sophomores, several were pushed into varsity play. During the 2-8 varsity campaign, the rookies often absorbed physical and mental beatings by older, more mature opponents.

The most vulnerable was starting quarterback Hunter Walden, who took one of his worst thumpings in a lopsided loss to the Show Low Cougars. Walden says he remembers being savagely sacked time after time during the onslaught.

Other sophomores also saw varsity playing time trying to shore up weaker upper-class turnouts and also fill in for some older players who had quit the team.

Despite the thrashing the sophomores took, almost all were there, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, when fall drills opened in 1997.

The year turned out to be a banner one. After building a 9-1 record, the team was well on its way to fulfilling its state championship dream when it met up with Blue Ridge in a state quarterfinal game played at Mesa College.

Payson jumped out to an early 7-0 lead but two costly miscues allowed Blue Ridge to escape with one of its patented come-from-behind wins.

Disappointed, but not discouraged, the juniors returned home to Payson frustrated. There wouldn't be another shot at the state crown for a year and that would be the seniors' final opportunity.

The months passed slowly but the seniors remained steadfast in their goal.

Supplemented by a strong junior class, the Longhorns marched unscathed through the regular season and the first three games of the state tournament.

Entering Saturday's state championship game, the Horns knew they were decided underdogs to the Yellow Jackets, who were in search of their fifth consecutive crown and 65th straight win.

Trailing 20-13 at halftime, the Horns refused to be denied in the final two quarters.

By outscoring Blue Ridge 16-0, the team picked up the first Class 3A state championship in the history of Payson High School. In 1981, the undefeated Longhorns won the Class B championship.

The victory also put an end to a Blue Ridge legacy that had dominated the Arizona sports scene like no other in the history of 3A football.

On the jubilant Payson sidelines Saturday evening, after an all-out celebration, the seniors breathed a collective sigh of relief for a job well done.

They had talked the talk and walked the walk.

Fullback Cable Morris summed up their attitude best: "We just refused to give up."

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