With all-important East Division football action heating up, the Longhorns will be scrapping for their second league victory Friday evening when the squad travels to Whiteriver to take on the Alchesay Falcons. Kick off is at 7 p.m.
The Horns own a 1-0 record in East play (2-1-1 overall), but wins over Alchesay and the Holbrook Roadrunners next week are musts if the team is to stay in the running for the East championship.
Both Alchesay and Holbrook are considered the weak sisters of the division, and a loss to either is a definite no-no for title contenders.
That's especially true in the Payson camp, since the Longhorns wrap up East play with an unenviable string of games. The trip through football purgatory includes stops in Blue Ridge (Oct. 22) and Show Low (Oct. 29) and a visit from the Snowflake Lobos (Oct. 15).
If the Horns can survive the White Mountain trio and earn at least a fourth-place finish in the division, the team would earn a berth in the state's opening round to begin Nov. 5.
But before the Horns can set their sights on the state tournament, there's the matter of getting their own house in order for the visit to Alchesay.
The squad has had its ups and downs, especially in last week's 19-13 win over Round Valley when penalties and bad breaks seemed to await the Horns at every turn. If the Payson squad can rid themselves of those nuances, it could be on a roll reminiscent of last year's magical stretch run.
One given on the team has been the yeoman-like rushes of fullback Justin Kauffman who leads the team with 280 yards in 58 attempts and three touchdowns.
Tailback Timmy Bunting missed the first two games and has yet to get untracked with only 73 yards in 27 attempts. For the Horns to be a force, Bunting has to regain the elusive running form he has shown since he played middle-school football.
Through the airways, wideout Scotty Garduno leads the team in receptions with six for 75 yards. Dusty Brockett, also a wide receiver, has just four catches but they've been for 133 yards and three touchdown. Against Round Valley, he caught a 54-yarder that went for a crucial touchdown.
Brockett and Garduno are keys to the Longhorn aerial attack launched by quarterback Kyle Conway. The senior signal caller has completed 16 of 54 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, the Horn staff made a crucial switch last week, placing all-division linebacker Jimbo Armstrong at nose guard for portions of the game.
The strategy worked when RV changed their blocking schemes to control him. Then, the Payson linebackers were able to run free.
Defensive end Sterling White, a stalwart on the D line, was yanked from the RV game as a precaution after he suffered a head injury. Coaches say he'll likely return to the line in time for Friday night's game.
Alchesay and Holbrook will provide the Longhorns the opportunity to iron out the kinks of their offense and defense before the league bad boys rear their ugly heads.
If the team takes advantage, it could set the stage for a second consecutive run at state gold.