A pair of standout athletes and a stellar coach who played prominent roles in Payson High's march to the 1998 state football championship will not return to the Longhorn fold next season.
Linebacker Ryan Lorentz and wide receiver/kicker Josh Barnhart graduated last spring and will move into the college ranks.
Lorentz is bound for Arizona Western College in Yuma where he will be on a full-ride scholarship. Barnhart has set his sights on Northern Arizona University and hopes to earn a slot on the Lumberjack team as a walk-on punter and kicker.
Coach Curt LeBlanc, the Horns' offensive coordinator, has resigned at PHS and will accept a head coaching position at River Valley High School near Bullhead City. The trio -- who have been together since the 1995 season when LeBlanc was the Horns' freshman coach and Lorentz and Barnhart were first-year players -- wrapped up their career as PHS representatives last week at the Arizona Coaches' Association North vs. South All-Star clash.
Played on the campus of Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, the three former Horns fueled the South's 24-6 upset of the North.
LeBlanc served as an assistant coach in charge of the South's defensive ends and offensive backs.
It was his second successive appearance as an all-star game coach.
In the celestial clash, Barnhardt shined, kicking two extra points and a 30-yard field goal. From his wide receiver position, he had three receptions for 151 yards.
Ironically, Lorentz, who played inside linebacker in the Longhorns 52 defense most of his varsity career, started at the up-back position in the South's Power-I offense.
"We didn't have enough backs, so (the coaches) put me there," Lorentz said.
About the only offensive experience Lorentz had under his shoulder pads was as an eighth-grader and freshman when he played tight end.
"It was really strange playing (offense) but all I really had to do was block," he said.
The highlight of the game for him, he said, was a kick-out block on a defensive end and a follow-up pancake of a linebacker that led to a South TD run.
He did see some action at linebacker but found the experience unusually strange because all-star rules require players at those positions to align themselves three yards off and ball and blitzing and stunting are now allowed.
"I'd see a fullback coming and I'd have to wait," he said. "It was really different."
The Horns had two other representatives -- Cable Morris and Jordan Sieverson -- tapped to play in the all-star game, but the pair had to decline due to summer employment responsibilities.
Morris did opt for being a member of an Arizona all-star team that will play an exhibition game next week in Australia.
Leaving Payson, LeBlanc said, was a tough decision, but the opportunity to take over his own program was too great an opportunity to turn down.
Like Payson, River Valley is a Class 3A school, but competes in the West Division. Last season, the team finished 7-2 and earned a trip to the state tournament where it was eliminated in the first round by Coolidge.
LeBlanc's big challenge, he says, "is to first get the team out of the first round and someday play in Mesa (where the state champion is contested)."
Accomplishing that goal could be a rough ride since the Dust Devils graduated most of last year's team and will begin play next season with a group of untested jayvee players. "We will have young kids. It will be a rebuilding year," he said.
LeBlanc first showed up on the Payson gridiron scene in 1993 when he accepted a volunteer freshman position under former Horn coach Dan Dunn.
As a 1991 graduate of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, LeBlanc's first assignment was in St. Johns' where he was both a teacher and coach.
In 1995, LeBlanc was given the assignment as the head freshman coach under new PHS mentor Jim Beall.
The following year, he teamed with Jack Morris to lead the jayvees to an undefeated season, which set the stage for the Longhorns' run to the 1998 state championship. At the onset of last season he took over the offensive coordinator responsibilities for Payson and was the man responsible for pulling the trigger each time the Longhorns took over possession of the ball.
The run to the state crown, he said, was a huge thrill which he hopes to repeat again.
"I don't want to sound arrogant," he said, "but I don't think that was my last (state) championship. I'll be there again."