Only a couple of years ago, sweat-soaked, iron-willed gridiron battles between the Payson Longhorns and the Arizona Boys Ranch Spartans were clashes which highlighted two proud football programs wrestling for post season honors.
But, that's all in the storied past. Friday evening, Payson's 49-0 romp over the down, depleted and beaten-up Spartans (0-2) was not much more than warmup exercises for the state fourth-ranked Horns (1-0-1) .
So what happened at Arizona Boys Ranch to send the once-proud Spartans crumbling to their knees? A well-chronicled scandal in which a Ranch student died amidst charges of abuse created enough legal woes to keep offices full of lawyers rolling in cash retainers for decades.
California criminal authorities, who sent some of their problem youths to the reform school located in Queen Creek, pulled their students out. As legal woes mounted, ABR continued to lose placements until the student body numbered less than 50.
Ultimately, football coach Gary Galante departed for greener pastures, leaving the program in shambles. Last summer, Payson High School Athletic Director Barry Smith wasn't sure ABR could field a team for its Sept. 10 matchup against the Horns.
Just as preseason drills opened in early August, Ranch officials mustered enough healthy teen-age bodies, mostly those without any football experience, to sport a team.
Much to the school, coaches and youngsters' credit, the Spartans showed up at PHS field Friday evening and took on the homestanding Longhorns knowing there never was much chance for a victory.
The evening belonged mostly to Longhorn senior fullback Justin Kaufmann, who rushed for a game-high 140 yards on 19 carries.
Kaufmann got the Horns off and running with 6:53 remaining in the first quarter when he broke through the outmanned Spartan defense for a 13-yard TD run.
Later, quarterback Kyle Conway's 2-yard scoring run --along with two successful conversion kicks from Dusty Brockett -- upped the Horns' lead to 14-0.
Kaufmann lifted the count to 20-0 with 2:48 remaining in the first stanza on a 1-yard run set up by an earlier 9-yard burst.
Before the first quarter ended, Brockett's boot pushed the Horns out to a 21-0 cushion more comfortable than a couch potato's favorite recliner.
Continuing to roll unchecked, Kauffman racked up his third touchdown of the game on a 3-yard run just as the clock ticked down to 1:08 remaining in the half. The score, coupled with Brockett's toe, gave Payson a 34-0 halftime lead and erased any doubts as to which team was in line for state tournament play.
ABR's woes continued to mount in the second half when sophomore Payson tailback Levi Armstrong tacked on two more TDs on scoring runs of 2 and 3 yards.
With their first victory of the season under their belt, the Horn players and staff will focus their attention on the Mike Morgan-coached St. Johns Redskins.
Unlike Friday's game against ABR, a visit to tradition-rich St. Johns is a challenge that requires every ounce of fortitude young players can muster.
In prep football coaching circles, visits to St. Johns are the stuff of which legends are made.
Varsity game time is 7 p.m. in St. Johns. The game will be preceded by freshmen and jayvee encounters at 4:30 (frosh) at 6 p.m. (jayvee) at the Payson High School stadium.