More than pride and gridiron bragging rights will be at stake when Payson locks horns with Show Low at 7 p.m. Friday evening in Cougar stadium.
Most importantly, the winner of the clash will be awarded the East region's third seed into the state tournament slated to begin Nov. 2.
The loser of Friday's showdown will be relegated to the region's fourth and final seed.
The difference between a third and fourth seed was much easier to understand before the 3A conference instituted its power ranking system. Prior to power points, regions were paired against each other in the opening round.
For example, East might play West, and South play North.
The first two seeds from each region would open the state tournament at home.
The fourth seed would travel to the home site of the regional champion it was paired against.
A third seed would visit the regional runner-up from the opposing region.
But with the power ranking system, officials will seed state qualifiers into the tournament based on the strength of their schedule and wins and losses. Which means, two teams from the same region could meet one another in the state's opening round. A regional champion also could be paired against a runner-up in the state's first round.
Those two scenarios would never have unfolded under the old seeding system of No. 1 versus No. 4, and No. 2 versus No. 3.
Because power rankings are in their first year of existence, it's impossible to predict how the state tournament pairings will affect postseason play.
Coaches have adopted a wait-and-see attitude about the new system.
Stalking the cats
Even with the power rankings, a season-ending win over the Cougars Friday evening can only help the Longhorns' state cause.
A victory would ensure the Horns (4-4 overall; 2-2 in the East) of a winning season, a higher East finish and also help erase some of the sting of last Friday's 64-0 loss to top-ranked and unbeaten Blue Ridge.
While the Horns will be in the recovery mode, the Cougars will take their home field as somewhat of an enigma, having struggled through a yo-yo like season.
After opening the campaign 5-0 and looking more like a state contender than pretender, the cats were forced into overtime by Round Valley. At the time, that was surprising since the Elks have been just about every schools' whipping boy.
The Cougars survived 21-14 in OT, but lost in successive weeks to Blue Ridge 61-0 and Snowflake 31-0.
Last Friday, Show Low rebounded from its two-game skid to beat Alchesay 41-6. But then again, Alchesay has been hammered by every East team, including Payson, which delivered a 64-0 knock-out punch.
Show Low sports a 7-2 overall record, but its 2-2 East slate ties them with Payson for the third slot in the East standings.
In Show Low's loss to Snowflake, Cougar quarterback Craig Wyble also the team leader broke his collarbone and is not expected to play against Payson. His loss was a huge setback for the Cougars.
If the Show Low lineup features a player who will give the Horns fits, it's noseguard Scott Croft. A student at Rim Country Middle School during his eighth-grade year, Croft now a senior represents a huge obstacle for the Longhorn offensive line to overcome. Croft has won about every postseason honor possible and has the size and ability to play on the next level.
Payson will counter Croft and his fellow defenders with an offense that has been led by senior fullback Levi Armstrong. With 893 yards rushing on 142 attempts, his 6.3 yards per carry average is impressive. And, most of those yards have come by pounding the ball between the tackles.
Waylon Pettet, has a slightly better rushing average (7.4 yards per carry), but the junior halfback has only carried the ball 50 times.
To emerge victorious in Show Low, both youngsters will have to help the team break out of the funk it was in during the loss to Blue Ridge.
Armstrong was held to a season-low 42 yards on 18 carries. Pettet did not carry the ball.
To cage the Cougars, the Horns also will have to throw the ball much sharper than last Friday, when QB Ky Bradley was intercepted three times.
One of those interceptions which came with 15 seconds remaining in the game was returned 44 yards for a touchdown.
Only 30 seconds earlier, Blue Ridge's Matt Garcia scooped up a Payson fumble and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown.
Those kinds of back-breaking mistakes against Show Low could result in a long evening for the Longhorns.
The lower level
The undefeated Payson High School freshman team learned Monday afternoon that their spirited season was at an end.
Earlier in the day, Show Low officials notified Athletic Director Dave Bradley of their intention to cancel Thursday's freshman game.
Freshman coach Denny Morse said the cancellation was a huge disappointment for the team, because the players were looking forward to the season finale against an old rival from their middle school days.
With the cancellation, the freshmen wrap up the season with an 8-0 record.
During the course of the campaign, the talented frosh stamped themselves as possibly the best frosh team in PHS history.
Freshman head coach David Daniels praised the young athletes, saying, "After watching them play, everyone knows they're a good team, but they're also great kids."
A jayvee game against Show Low will be played, as scheduled, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.