The toughest rivalry of the year for the Payson High School varsity girls' soccer team once again pitted the Longhorns against the scrappy Show Low Cougars this week in Payson.
Despite having tied the Cougars in overtime play earlier in the season, and being handed their only loss at home, Longhorn players are vowing to even the score before the season is over.
The Wednesday afternoon game saw what some consider the two best 3A teams in the state go head-to-head in a hotly contested and rather evenly matched duel.
Payson's offense performed with precision as they controlled the ball repeatedly near the Cougar goal but were unable to find the net. Payson's forward and wing positions provided dominating ball handling and offensive pressure, but Show Low was quick to respond, letting Payson know they weren't going down without a fight.
The first half of action included only one lone goal scored by Show Low just moments before the break. The shot entered the net only inches below the top bar making it all but impossible for goalie Brenna Zumbro to reach.
Second-half action played out like a war novel fought in the trenches of some distant battlefield. On offense for Payson, Shaina Vaught was hit directly in the face by a full-swinging kick from a Show Low opponent just a few feet away. As she fell to the ground, the entire crowd gasped with concern over what could obviously have been the cause of serious injury.
"She was told to shadow Show Low's No. 14," coach Linda Gibson said. "When she picked herself up off the ground (although play stopped momentarily, she never left the game), with a look of determination on her face, the first thing she said was, 'Where's #14?'"
Next, Payson wing Amy Wilcox who showed outstanding ball-handling skills throughout the game drove the ball around Show Low defenders taking a shot which found the net, tying the game 1-1. Despite toughness that would inspire a Marine, today was not be the day for Payson as Show Low scored two more times before time ran out.
While Payson's defense struggled, Show Low's backfield seemed to turn up the heat, making the final score 3-1. The loss brings Payson to 4-1-1, with the Longhorns' lone loss and tie both coming from the Cougars.
"The toughest part of the game was seeing our players attitudes go down and how it affected their play," Wilcox said.
Zumbro echoed the sentiment. "The mental part was really the toughest. We let them intimidate us," she said.
Coach Gibson said Show Low has some tough players. "We had a hard time shutting down Show Low's wing No. 14 who is really their No. 1 weapon. However, we've done it before," she said.
Gibson said Payson's offense was the obvious strength of the team.
"Our forwards and wings were really on today, but we struggled a little on defense," she said.
When you ask the players about Payson's strength, you quickly learn their camaraderie goes beyond the field.
"I think our strength comes from the fact we're a team of mostly Christians who play well together on and off the field," Zumbro said.
Wilcox said the fans also provide constant inspiration for the players. "They're a big plus when they come to cheer us on," she said.
The Lady Horns face Snowflake Wednesday and then on to the Camp Verde Tournament the following weekend.
With coaches expecting to have at least two players named to the All-State team, it's obvious these girls have their sights set on the state championship. In fact, Zumbro feels she already knows who the other team will be. "I think we'll see Show Low at state," she said. When asked if she had any predictions, she said, "Just tell them here we come, and you better look out!"