For Payson, a winning record is on the line when the Horns (4-4 overall, 2-3 in the East) play host to defending state champion Show Low this evening. Kickoff in the regular-season ending showdown is 7 p.m. in Longhorn stadium.
Pulling off an upset over the favored Cougars, who enter the game ranked third in the state with a 6-2 record, could be a prodigious undertaking for the young Horns.
Show Low is enjoying a red-hot roll after a disastrous start that saw the team lose its head coach, then suffer through a pair of shutouts in its first three games.
The fiasco in Cougar-land began to unfold late last summer when Bill Morgan, the state 1999 Coach of the Year, resigned after a flap with school administrators. He was quickly replaced by defensive coordinator Tim Slade who earlier served head coaching stints at both Mogollon and Round Valley High Schools.
In the season opener with Slade at the helm the Cougars were humiliated, 49-0, by Class 4A power Tempe High. After rebounding to beat lowly 2A Ray 48-0, the wounded Cats purred through a 31-0 loss to Blue Ridge
Since the defeat, the Cougars have posted five consecutive wins and appear primed for a run at a second state crown.
Payson enters tonight's fray fresh off a gutsy showing Oct. 20 against top-ranked and unbeaten Blue Ridge.
In most of BR's lopsided victories earlier this season, the Jackets have jumped out to early leads and coasted to easy wins with reserves on the field. Lopsided triumphs have been by scores like 55-0, 56-0, 57-0 and 45-0.
Although Blue Ridge posted a 41-6 victory over Payson, the Longhorns were able to battle on even terms with the bad boys of Lakeside much of the game. At halftime, BR clung to a precarious 13-0 lead. On the second-half kickoff, the Horns recovered a Jacket fumble in the end zone to close BR's lead to 13-6.
Payson's TD ended BR's string of six consecutive shutouts.
Late in the third quarter and throughout the fourth, the Yellow Jackets revved up their once-sputtering offense to end any hopes Payson had of an upset.
In the Horns' loss, senior tailback Levi Armstrong turned in what PHS assistant coach Jack Morris called his best game of the season, finishing with 92 yards on 20 carries.
Armstrong will again have to be at the top of his game if the Horns are to be successful against Show Low.
He enters his final prep game as Payson's leading rusher with 483 yards in 106 attempts (4.6 average). He's also scored four touchdowns and all season has proven to be a reliable punt returner.
Another important weapon at the Longhorns' disposal is quarterback Ky Bradley. Through the airways, the junior signal-caller has shown a steady efficiency by completing 46 of 97 attempts for 608 yards and four touchdowns.
Should the Horns have to call upon the air game to move the ball against Show Low, Bradley must be on target to receivers Scotty Garduno, Shaun Hounshell, Dusty Brockett and Waylon Pettet.
If Payson has a secret weapon that could lead to Show Low's demise, it might be Pettet. The sophomore speedster has returned seven kickoffs for 255 yards and one touchdown. With a return average of 36.4 yards, he's often been only a half-step from breaking a long gain or TD.
Defensively, the Horns are paced by a solid linebacking crew led by Reed Hatch. According to PHS statistics, he's the team's leading tackler with 29 assists and five solo take-downs. He's also intercepted two passes which he's returned for 41 yards.
Other defensive leaders, according to statistics, are Jason Estrella (31 tackles), Caleb Miller (29), O.J. Siebert (28) and Sean Pickle (27).
Following tonight's game, whether Payson wins or loses, many of the footballers will turn their attentions to the sports of basketball and wrestling. Both endeavors begin preseason preparations Monday.
Because Payson did not finish among the top four teams in the East region, the team will not be participating in the postseason tournament to begin Nov. 3.