With a 22-6 victory over Safford in the rear-view mirror and less-than-formidable Canyon State Academy in the headlights, the Longhorn football express could be motoring out to a 2-0 season's start.
Should the unblemished jump-start unfold as anticipated, it would catch onlookers in the White Mountain's East Region by surprise.
At the onset of the campaign, the Horns were projected to be an also-ran in the 3A conference, mostly because the nucleus of last year's state tournament-qualifying team graduated with the Class of 2000.
But with only a handful of letter winners returning, the Horns dominated Safford Friday evening in the regular season-opener played in Safford.
Next up, Canyon State Academy Sept. 8 in Queen Creek could be a stroll in the park for the Horns.
Canyon State formerly Arizona Boys Ranch is only a skeleton of the once powerful ABR Spartan teams that in 1995, 1996 and 1997 reached the state championship.
But legal woes due to the death of a student-inmate followed by a lengthy investigation into the operating practices of the school eventually spelled the demise of Boys Ranch.
Now operating under the glitzy title of "academy," Canyon State will find the gridiron going rough this season, coaches predict.
"They are down, no doubt about it," Wheelis said.
Waylon Pettet's stunning 88-yard return of the opening kickoff coupled with a successful conversion kick by Dusty Brockett propelled the Horns to a lead they never relinquished.
Payson upped the lead to 13-0 in the second quarter when quarterback Ky Bradley hooked up with wide receiver Dusty Brocket on a 24-yard scoring pass.
On the play, a flood pattern, Brockett ran a curl in the end zone that caught the Bulldog defenders off guard.
Leading 13-0 after a failed conversion the Horns increased their lead to 16-0 at halftime with a 24-yard field goal by Brockett.
With 4:43 left in the third quarter, Bradley who finished 4 for 14 for 44 yards through the airways scored on a 7-yard quarterback keeper off an option play.
The conversion kick was wide right.
With a 22-point lead, the Horn coaching staff called the dogs off the Dogs sending reserves into play.
"We had everyone in there," assistant coach Jack Morris said.
Safford tallied its lone TD with 2:27 remaining in the game. The score followed a sustained 70-yard march that consisted mostly of off-tackle powerplays against the Horn understudies.
Following the game, Morris cited the entire squad for their spirited play saying the victory could be attributed to "playing as a team."
Defensively, Payson was led by ends Sterling White and O.J. Siebert, who constantly stuffed the Dogs' Wing-T offense.
Linebackers Steve Williamson, Cory McRae and Reed Hatch drew praise from Wheelis.
"All of them played well," he said.
Also, the backfield of Caleb Miller, R.C. LaHaye, Brockett and Pettet playing mostly two-deep zone coverage earned accolades from coaches for holding the Dog passing game in check.
Offensively, White manning right tackle in the Horns power option offense was cited for stellar blocking that allowed Payson backs to romp free.
"He (White) really got off the ball," Morris said.
The coaches also reserved plenty of plaudits for Bradley, who was in his first varsity start at quarterback.
"He did a nice job and made a lot of good decisions," Wheelis said.
For the few veteran Payson players who participated in last year's highly controversial 6-6 season opening tie against Safford, Friday's convincing victory was especially satisfying.
In 1999, Safford led 6-0 most of the game until Payson scored late to dead-knot the contest.
However, a review of game films the following day revealed quarterback Kyle Conway was beyond the line-of-scrimmage when he threw the game-tying pass.
Because the game was played in Payson and featured a local officiating crew, cries of "home cooking" were heard coming out of southern Arizona.
Unlike 1999, Friday's win left little doubt which was the superior team.