With stirring victories in opening and quarterfinal rounds of the state tournament, the Payson High School soccer team has earned its first-ever berth in the elite final four.
The showdown among the teams remaining in the 3A conference tournament begins at 2 p.m. Nov. 5 with the Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets taking on Chino Valley.
The second clash, at 4 p.m., will pit the Longhorns against Round Valley
The winners of the two semifinal games will advance to the state championship slated for noon Saturday.
All the tournament games will be played on the Camp Verde High School football field.
By reaching the final four, the current Longhorn team has set a school standard. In the six-year history of the soccer program, the furthest a team had advanced in the state tournament was last year when the PHS team reached the quarterfinals before being eliminated.
Coach Dave Greiner said the success of this year's team was due to the dedication and efforts of the players and a program that is now reaching maturity.
The first two rounds
The state tournament opened Oct. 29 in Camp Verde with the Longhorns -- which entered as the third seed from the Rim Region --taking on Tucson Desert Christian High School. TDC participated as the top seed from Southern Arizona's Desert Region.
The teams battled on even terms throughout most of the game. Finally, midfielder Jeremy Conner broke the deadlock by heading in a shot off a corner kick.
The 1-0 lead eventually held up thanks to a strong defensive effort. With the win, the Horns nailed down a trip to the quarterfinals against Mountain Region Champion Camp Verde.
The two schools are no strangers to one another, having developed a strong rivalry the last two seasons when both were members of the Mountain Region.
Like the epic battles of past seasons, the game turned into a barn burner that took several unique twists.
After Payson jumped ahead 2-0 at halftime -- with goals by forward David Shaw and Conner --the Horn offense turned strangely silent.
As Payson struggled to get untracked, a bizarre, potentially dangerous situation began to unfold.
Game officials and at least one Payson player heard shots, possibly from a pellet gun, whizzing across the field.
Officials stopped play and called police who scoured the area, with no luck, in search of the culprit. After the area was secured, play resumed but the Horns never regained the aggressive form they had shown early in the game.
"During that time out, (Camp Verde) had time to rest and we had a letdown," Greiner said.
CV eventually closed the lead to 2-1 and had ample scoring opportunities in the final minutes of the shoot-out.
"That was the longest seven minutes of my life," Greiner said.
Eventually the Horns hung on for the nail-biting victory and earned the right to play Round Valley in the semifinals.
What's at stake?
As members of the Mountain Region, the Elks and Longhorns met twice during the regular campaign.
In the season opener Sept. 1 in Eager, RV took a relatively easy 4-0 victory.
In a rematch played Oct. 9 at Rumsey Park, the Horns returned the favor, whipping the Elks 5-2.
The two games gave Greiner decent opportunities to assess what it will take for the Horns to whip RV and advance to the state championship.
"We have to win every ball and control the center of the field," he said. "If we do that, we can win. If we are back on our heels, we can lose."
The state tournament will mark the end of the prep careers of several Longhorn seniors. They include: Justin Cline, Kino Cohen, Jeremy Conner, Aaron Dahir, Meikle Garrett, Tanner Hatch, Joey Klein, Tyler Perna, Joey Robinson, David Shaw, Adam Stayzak, Keith Stevens, Jared Wallace and Michael Wright.