The Payson Longhorns' hope for a top-four East region finish and a seed into the season-ending state tournament took a huge hit Friday evening in Eagar.
There, a 28-7 loss to homestanding Round Valley High School dropped the Horns to 0-1 in East play and 2-2 overall. It's early in the season, but with regional roughnecks Snowflake (Oct. 13), Blue Ridge (Oct. 20) and defending state champion Show Low (Oct. 27) lurking in the wings, the Horns are facing the meat of their schedule.
The good news on the agenda is that the Horns will have the home-field advantage against both Blue Ridge and Show Low.
If Payson is to achieve its goal of a fourth consecutive berth in the state tournament, the team must pull off an upset over one of the top three contenders and hope lowly Alchesay and Holbrook can provide much-needed help by doing the same.
Of course, a couple of upsets over the Lobos, Cougars or the Yellow Jackets would be a tremendous boost for the Horns.
In Eagar and Springerville, fans are celebrating the state third-ranked Round Valley's triumph over Payson which has RV (2-0 in the East) positioned for a strong run at one of the region's top-four state seeds.
Track champ breaks up close game
In the Horns loss to RV, the Elks running mostly counter, option and bootleg plays put on a show of speed and power that could bode them well if they do indeed make it to the state tournament.
Much of the Elk quickness was provided by speedster Cory Austin who is the East region defending state champion in the 200 meters.
"Once he turned the corner, he was gone," PHS assistant coach Jack Morris said.
With 11:53 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Elks clinging to a precarious 14-7 lead, Austin hauled in a 45-yard scoring pass from quarterback Buddy LeSueur to up the RV lead to 20-7.
Only seven minutes later, Austin iced the Round Valley victory cake reaching pay dirt on a 32-yard run. Travis Hamblin's successful conversion kick pushed the Elks victory margin to 21 points.
The Elk victory cause received a shot in the arm early in the game when running back Josh Rogers scored on a one-yard run. Roger's score with 8:24 to go in the first quarter capped a drive that began after Hamblin returned the opening kickoff 44 yards. LeSueur's PAT kick pushed the count to 7-0.
With 7:50 remaining in the second quarter, Hamblin who provided the power in the RV offense with 17 carries for 79 yards padded the RV lead to 14-0 on a two-yard run.
Refusing to fold under the pressure of the two TD deficit, the Horns came roaring back behind the defensive antics of Dusty Brockett.
With only 11 seconds remaining in the first half, Brockett playing cornerback in the Horn defense intercepted a badly thrown LeSueur aerial and returned it 51 yards for a touchdown.
Brockett's kick closed the Elk lead to 14-7.
The two teams battled through a scoreless third quarter and into the fourth stanza before Austin's heroics ended Horn hopes for a successful East region debut.
The victory slipper might have been on the other hoof, had Payson been able to get its power option offense untracked.
But with only 126 yards in total offense 65 on the ground and 61 through the airways the Longhorn "O" couldn't generate any consistent scoring drives. The Horns' chief running threat, junior Levi Armstrong, was held to just 31 yards on 12 carries. Quarterback Ky Bradley was stymied to a minus-13 yards rushing.
Through the airways, Bradley completed six of 11 attempts for 61 yards. He had one intercepted.
Despite the frustrations of a loss, the junior signal caller played well. "He was giving it everything he had," Morris said.
While the Payson offense was sputtering to a standstill, Round Valley was churning out 358 yards 239 of which came on the ground.
The Horns will have the opportunity to get back on the winning East region track at 7 p.m. Friday in PHS stadium. Alchesay Whiteriver visits Longhorn land to participate in Payson High's annual homecoming clash, which will be preceded by a week full of the traditional hoopla and hijinks.
Alchesay enters the contest still licking its wounds from a 41-8 thumping administered Friday by Snowflake.
Both the freshmen and jayvee teams will be in action Sept. 28 in Whiteriver. Freshman kickoff is at 4:30 p.m. and jayvee at 6 p.m. on the Alchesay High School football field.