There could be a state tournament berth in the Payson Longhorns' future.
A 34-14 win over the Round Valley Elks Friday evening in PHS stadium was the first stepping stone toward earning the much coveted seed into post season play.
The Horns can assure themselves of a berth into the tournament by beating Alchesay Friday (Oct. 12) in Whiteriver.
The good news for local fans is that whipping the winless Falcons hasn't been much of a chore this season.
Last Friday, Snowflake dominated Alchesay in a 64-0 victory that saw Lobo quarterback Porter Caldwell complete 14 of 15 passes for 226 yards and six touchdowns in the first half.
Although Alchesay has long been the doormat of the East region, the Longhorns won't take a victory for granted with a state tournament berth at stake, coach Steve Saban said.
To advance to state in the East, a minimum of two victories is all that is needed.
In an Arizona Interscholastic Association realignment of the 3A conference last spring, the East was reduced to six teams from seven that had existed prior.
With four teams from each of the 3A's regions awarded seeds to state, only two teams from the East will not advance. Currently those two schools appear to be Alchesay and Round Valley.
In the South, where nine teams reside, five teams will not qualify for state.
A victory in Whiteriver Friday will assure the Horns of at least a four seed, but a win over defending state champion Blue Ridge (Oct. 19) or Show Low (Oct. 26) could improve the Horns seeding into the state showdown.
Whipping Show Low (6-1) appears to be a much easier chore than a victory over unbeaten and top-ranked Blue Ridge (6-0).
Last Friday, the Yellow Jackets soundly thumped the then number-four ranked Cougars 64-0.
The powerful Jackets have rolled over every team they have faced this year, including Parker (5-1), that was projected in preseason polls to be a state championship contender.
A victory over Round Valley might not have become a reality had it not been for third-quarter touchdown reception by sophomore tight end Mike Barr.
With Payson trailing 7-0 as play began in the second half, Barr hauled in a short pass on a back side drag pattern from quarterback Ky Bradley.
With pigskin in hand, the 6 foot, 5 inch Barr lumbered almost 60 yards to paydirt and the game-tying touchdown.
Barr's effort on the play drew praise from the coaching staff.
"It turned the game around," Saban said.
"(That touchdown) got us untracked," assistant coach Jack Morris said. "It gave us the momentum we didn't have in the first half."
With the score dead-knotted at 7-7, the Horns turned to the rushing exploits of senior fullback Levi Armstrong and Bradley for the go ahead points.
Armstrong finished as the game's leading rusher with 184 yards in 24 attempts. His heroics were especially significant in that he was playing with an injured shoulder that hampered his running ability in the first half.
Running mostly on waggle plays in which he has the option to pass or run, Bradley racked up 93 yards on 10 carries. The effort on offense was only a portion of his contributions to the win.
A free safety most of the past season, coaches shifted Bradley to linebacker on occasions. There, he and teammates playing mostly a base 52 defense were able to thwart Round Valley's passing and rushing attempts.
In addition to the duo's exploits, the Horns received good efforts from an offensive line that struggled a week ago in a 36-15 loss to Snowflake.
After coaches spent most of the practice week toying with personnel changes center Kevin Moran, guards Levi Amon and Sean Pickle and tackles Jeremy Greenburg and Ingo Beck stepped up in the second half to open gapping holes for Horn backs. "They all blocked well," Morris said.
The win over the Elks marked the end of the home campaign for the Longhorns. With three road games remaining, local fans must travel to Whiteriver, Lakeside and Show Low if they want a final glimpse of the Horns in regular season action.
If Payson whips Alchesay and earns a postseason berth, state opening round play would begin Nov. 2.
Because there is a power point ranking system in use this year, tournament qualifiers will be seeded into postseason play based on the strength of their schedule.
The first round of the tournament will be played at the home site of the two highest seeds in each of the four regions.