Payson High School's exit from the ranks of the Class 3A conference to 4A circles doesn't mean a longtime rivalry between a Beast of the East and the Longhorns is at an end.
At 7 p.m. tonight (Friday) in Snowflake, the 2003 edition of the PHS football team will test its mettle against a Lobo team that is second-ranked in preseason 3A polls.
In the controlled scrimmage, no score will be kept and there will be no punts or kickoffs. Coaches also will be allowed on the field to offer up-close instruction to their players.
The Lobos and Longhorns have battled one another in all sports -- both high schools and middle schools -- since the early 1980s.
Longhorn boys basketball head coach and assistant football coach Mike Loutzenheiser might have put it most succinctly several years ago when he helped guide a Rim Country Middle School football team to a win over the Lobos.
"Beating Snowflake in any sport at any level is great," he said.
As a student at PHS, Loutzenheiser was a wide receiver and defensive back on the 1986 Longhorn team that lost a heartbreaking 7-0 state championship decision to the Lobos.
The heated rivalry that has developed between the schools might add a little spark to tonight's scrimmage that otherwise would be a ho-hum affair.
First-year PHS coach Jerry Rhoades has not been a part of the Lobo-Longhorn rivalry, but that doesn't mean he won't be expecting a Herculean effort from each of his players. The coach says he'll use the battle to evaluate personnel and tune up the offense and defense for the regular season-opener Aug. 29 against Cortez. Game time is 7 p.m. in Longhorn stadium.
Since he was hired last spring, Rhoades has put his charges through their paces in off-season practices, weight training and conditioning. That time has allowed him the opportunity to assess his athletes and determine which will be starters in this evening's scrimmage.
A crew of slightly undersized, but determined athletes are among the candidates for starting positions on Jack Morris' offensive line.
Morris said the crew is possibly the best he has coached in his six years at PHS.
The starters tonight could be Kevin Allen (quick tackle), Greg Barnes (quick guard), Kyle Sachak (center), Nick Degroot (strong guard) and Adam Munson (strong tackle). Some who have been around the program for years predict Barnes and Degroot might be the best offensive guard duo since Mark Velasco and Matt Rambo led the 1986 Longhorns to the state championship.
Another mainstay on the "O" line is sophomore Don Engler. Coaches praised his rock-solid practice habits and predict that all he needs to succeed is varsity playing time.
Others who have caught the coach's attention include Brandon Gordon, Luke Runzo and Michael Arnstein.
At "Y" or tight end, the Longhorns had one of the best in the state in senior Mike Barr. Much to the chagrin of coaches, fans and players, a wave runner accident two weeks ago at Roosevelt Lake sidelined Barr for an undetermined time.
With Barr out of the picture, coaches have scrambled to fill the void. Senior J.R. Szabo, who was the starting quarterback in spring ball and throughout the summer, has been moved to tight end.
In his absence at the signal caller slot, Donnie Wilbanks has taken over as the gunslinger in Payson's Wing-T offense.
At the "Z" or wingback spot where a player must be as good a blocker as he is a receiver, Nate Lee and Larry Wilbanks are battling for playing time.
The "X' or wide receiver starting position could go to Mark McRae. In spring and summer workouts, McRae showed he has the hands and speed to become a passing/receiving threat.
In the backfield, Tyler Williams could turn into one of the premier fullbacks in Arizona. The stocky, hard-running junior is a load for any defender to bring down. Last season as a sophomore, he was an all-region performer. With another year of seasoning, he can only get better. His improvement should be a scary thought for any defensive coordinator scheming to stop him.
At running back, speedy sophomore Luke Apfel appears to have all the tools it takes to follow in the footsteps of former Longhorn greats like Ty Chilson and Tom Fruth.
Also in the backfield, the Horns have talented players in fullback James Gibson and tailback Ryan Thiel.
Defensively, the Horns will abandon the 53 defenses the team used last season in favor of a 43 package that features an even or four-player front.
The staring positions on the front line could go to Williams, Munson, Barnes and Chris Skinner.
The "Mike" or middle linebacker slot could be manned by sophomore Cash Armstrong. Nate Lee is battling for a starting position at the "Sam" or strong side backer slot. Gibson might get the nod at the "Willie" or weak side slot.
Starting corners tonight might be Szabo and Thiel. Brothers Larry and Donnie Wilbanks could get the starting nod at the safety positions.
Coaches stressed that the battle for starting positions is wide open and performances at tonight's scrimmage will go a long way in picking starters for the season opener against Cortez.
Also in tonight's scrimmage, Rhoades will probably run only a few plays offensively from two different formations.
On defense, he will probably stay with a basic strategy, but might throw in a few stunts to keep things interesting.
Rhoades' defense could receive a stern test from Lobo running back Paul Johnson who last season rushed for more than 150 yards in Snowflake's win over Payson. Later in the season against Round Valley, Johnson broke his leg and was out for the year. Some in the White Mountains say the loss of Johnson cost the Lobos a shot at the 2002 state championship.