Horns Host Parents' Night, Whip Cougars In Season-Ending Game


Thanks to a gritty effort from an undersized but determined band of Payson High football players, the wicked witch of the White Mountains is ding-dong dead.

The 10-0 slaying of defending 3A champion and state third-ranked Show Low was staged Friday evening on a turf that more resembled the Taylor wading pool than a football field.

Torrential downpours drenched the Rim country throughout the day but cancellation or postponement of the East regional showdown never was an issue because there was no lightning accompanying the storm.

"We're going to play it," PHS Athletic Director Dave Bradley said just hours before kickoff.

The conditions had fans and spectators huddling under blankets to stay warm and dry, but the Big Surf-type atmosphere could have been just what the coach ordered for a team that has had its ups and downs this season.

"(The players) really seemed to like playing in it ... it was fun for them," assistant coach Jack Morris said.

Head coach Mike Wheelis agreed. "The kids actually wanted to go out and play in that slop they were excited about it."

For the Longhorns, the quagmire turned out to be a field of frolic but it also severely limited what either team's offense could accomplish.

Payson's power option, engineered all evening by junior signal caller Ky Bradley, finished with a season-low 140 net yards. However, that was a decent output considering what highly regarded Show Low's Wing-T offense sputtered to. The Cougars, who entered the game as overwhelming favorites, were limited to a paltry 75 yards.

Much of the frustration centered around the adverse conditions, but SL was also crimped by rock solid performances from defensive ends Austin Wilbanks and O.J. Siebert. Throughout the mud bath, both Wilbanks and Siebert shut down Show Low's bootleg plays that have been the bread and butter of the Cougar offense.

When the ends weren't stacking up SL quarterback Matt Belshe on the boots, tackles Sterling White and Jason Estrella along with noseguard Rocky Beery were stuffing the trap and power plays.

Horn inside linebackers Reed Hatch and Cory McRae also played huge roles in containing the Cougars' running and passing antics.

A mark of the effectiveness of the Horns' bandits aided by the foul weather was the inability of highly acclaimed Belshe to mount any type of air game.

The Cougar quarterback who in preseason accepted a scholarship to the University of Arizona finished 0 for 12 through the airways and was intercepted twice.

His inept performance wasn't one that will prompt U. of A. coach Dick Tomey to proclaim he's the Wildcat signal caller of the future.

Show Low's inability to either throw or run the ball would have been enough woes for any prep team. But the Cougars also had trouble latching on- to the pigskin, fumbling five times and losing two.

Some of the reasons for the fumbles might have been the ferocity with which the Horn defense played.

"The kids really hit hard ... they were fired up," Wheelis said.

The offense

While the Horn defense was stuffing everything Show Low threw at them, the offense was generating just enough firepower to chalk up the upset.

On a five-yard run with 3:25 remaining in the first quarter, senior tailback Levi Armstrong playing in his final prep game scored all the points Payson needed for the "W."

Tackle Jeremy Greenburg and fullback Steve Williamson unleashed the lead blocks that allowed Armstrong to run to paydirt.

Both Greenburg and Williamson, Wheelis said, turned in exceptional performances all evening.

Following Armstrong's TD, Dusty Brockett booted the conversion attempt that lifted the underdog Horns to a 7-0 lead.

The only other tally of the game lit up the scoreboard with 57 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Brockett toed a 22-yard field goal.

The nicely executed boot considering the playing conditions layered icing on the oh-so-sweet Longhorn's victory cake.

For senior wide receiver Scotty Garduno, the triumph went a long way in easing the disappointment of some tough losses this season.

"(The seniors) wanted to go out this way. We were really focused," he said.

Workhorse honors

If "workhorse" honors were to be doled out to players in the wild post-game celebration, Payson's citation would go to Armstrong.

The hard-charging teenager, known for his rock 'em sock 'em hits, was called upon for ball carrying chores a whopping 24 times.

Finishing with 76 yards, he was easily the offensive standout of the game.

With Armstrong bulldozing his way into the Cougar line that was anchored by 275-pound prep All-American Scott Croft the Horn brain trust opted to almost entirely abandon the air game.

In five pass attempts, Bradley completed two for 33 yards and was intercepted twice.

The scenario

The victory over the Cougars wrapped up the 2000 campaign for the Longhorns. With a 5-4 record overall (3-3 in the East), Payson will not be advancing to the state playoffs.

But the players can take some solace in the fact they might be the best gridiron squad in Arizona not clutching a ticket to the big dance.

The victory over the defending state champs, coupled with a solid performance in a loss to top-ranked and unbeaten Blue Ridge one week earlier, has caught the attention of the state's football fans.

Had it not been for a 12-7 loss to Snowflake Oct. 13, the Horns who showed marked improvement as the season wore on would be showcasing their skills in the state tournament.

The East region's four playoff seeds will go to Blue Ridge (#1), Show Low (#2), Round Valley (#3) and Snowflake (#4).

The Horns finished one slot out of the playoffs in fifth place.

It's over

The 2000 edition of Longhorns gathers one final time at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 7th at the Assembly of God Church for its annual awards banquet.

Varsity letters and commendations will be handed out, but the much-anticipated announcement of the players tapped to the All-East team will have to wait until a later date.

Regional coaches will not select the all-star team until the regular season-ending meeting Nov. 8 at Hondah.

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