The Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets don't sport with the swagger they once had, but that doesn't mean the Longhorns won't be looking to put a big hurt on the defending state football champions tonight.
At stake in the 7 p.m. homecoming game is second place in the East region standings. Blue Ridge enters the clash with a 3-0 East record (4-3 overall) and in sole possession of second place behind league-leading Snowflake (3-0 in the East, 7-0 overall). Currently, Payson holds down third in the region with a 2-1 mark (6-1 overall).
A Payson victory would even both teams' credentials at 3-1. But Payson would be eligible for the runner-up state playoff seed because it won the head-to-head meeting between the two schools.
In most years, Blue Ridge would be a clear favorite to win tonight's game. After all, football has long reigned as king in the White Mountain communities of Lakeside and Pinetop. State champions and 30-game winning streaks are expected of the Yellow Jackets. During his 18-year stay at Blue Ridge, coach Paul Moro has put together a 183-27 record. Before Moro, Joe Girardi was leading Blue Ridge to state titles.
This year, strange things are happening in Lakeside.
Just three weeks into the season, Blue Ridge was forced to forfeit a pair of victories over Parker and Mesa Red Mountain juniors for using an ineligible player.
In week four of the campaign, on the Yellow Jackets homecoming night, Blue Ridge was upset by the Winslow Bulldogs, 14-0. The loss sent shock waves through Pinetop and Lakeside where Blue Ridge defeats are as rare as a winning lottery ticket.
Just when things looked like they couldn't get any worse for Blue Ridge, rumblings began circulating among students and fans about the coaching staff's choice of a starting quarterback.
The coach's son, Alex Moro, is pulling the trigger in the offense. Some, however, believe that junior Curtis Farlander might be a better gunslinger.
In most small towns, prep football controversy is common. But, in Lakeside and Pinetop, the coaches' decisions are rarely questioned.
Since the onset of the season, Payson has managed to stack up wins by riding the one-two running punch of senior halfback Waylon Pettet and sophomore fullback Tyler Williams.
In 108 rushing attempts, Pettet has picked up 972 yards. His 9.3-yards-per-carry average and 10 touchdowns scored are among the best individual marks in the state.
Moro and his defensive staff have probably spent the week scheming ways to collar Pettet and his rushing antics. When Pettet is not lugging the pigskin around end, Williams is usually banging his way inside the guards on trap plays.
In 74 attempts, Williams has racked up 336 yards and has scored seven touchdowns.
When the Horn coaching staff looks for other options, tight end Mike Barr has usually been the target. Barr, a 6-foot, 7-inch, 220-pound junior, leads the Horns in receiving with 18 catches for 380 yards and five TDs.
Most often, senior Nate Perna has been on the throwing end of the aerials. He's completed 36 of 82 passes for 706 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Two weeks ago, Perna lost his starting job to junior Chad McRae, who started an Oct. 11 game against Round Valley. That demotion lasted only a short while because McRae missed an Oct. 18 win over Alchesay due to a family vacation.
Tonight, Perna will be the starting signal caller.
Defensively, coach Jimbo Armstrong has toyed with a 53 defensive look most of the season. In that odd-front scheme, linebacker Layton Howell has been the big hitter. He leads Armstrong's bandits with 29 solo tackles, 18 assists, two interceptions and two blocked punts.
Pettet, playing free safety, also has been a dominate defensive player. His marks of 26 solos, two assists and four interceptions is second only to Howell.
Defensive end Jake Swartwood has contributed 25 solos and six assists.
If comparative scores are used to pick a favorite in tonight's game, the showdown is a toss up.
Payson beat Alchesay 55-14 and Blue Ridge romped 49-6 over the Falcons.
Against Round Valley, Blue Ridge won 39-8 and Payson rolled to a 55-0 victory.