Payson's (7-2) hopes of a state playoff berth brightened considerably after Friday evening's 19-7 victory over the home-standing Page Dust Devils.
All that remains on the Horns' regular season agenda is a Nov. 7 skirmish against fellow Grand Canyon regional rival Flagstaff Sinagua. Kickoff is 7 p.m. in Flagstaff.
Although nothing is certain in the world of prep athletics, a win over the region-winless Mustangs appears to be a strong possibility. Such a victory would lift Payson to an 8-2 record in only the team's first year as a member of the Class 4A conference.
The team's impressive record, however, is not what will earn it a ticket to the state tournament. Rather, the 4A conference relies on power points to seed 16 teams to state.
Payson entered the Page game ranked 18th in the 4A conference. When power points are tallied and released today (Tuesday), the Horns could move closer to a playoff spot. That will depend, however, on how the schools ranked ahead of Payson fared in Friday's games.
Of most concern to Longhorn fans is that the 17th ranked Bradshaw Mountain Bears lost 27-7 to Centennial but 16th ranked Mingus roared past Flagstaff 24-0.
If the Longhorns edge into the state tournament as the 16th seed, the reward would be a dubious one. The team would play in the first round a No. 1 ranked Scottsdale Chaparral (9-0) squad that some tout as being as good as any team in Arizona.
Chaparral's most recent win was an 85-8 crushing of Desert Ridge.
Comparative scores mean little in assessing high school teams but the Longhorns beat Desert Ridge 41-0 on Sept. 19.
In the Horns' victory over the Dust Devils, Payson took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter on Luke Apfel's six-yard scamper.
The sophomore speedster was returning to the lineup after being sidelined since early season by a hamstring injury. Apfel finished with 25 yards on 15 carries. In the second stanza, Tyler Williams exploded five yards up the middle to give the Longhorns a 12-0 lead. With 5:36 remaining in the second quarter, Page scored on Andy Thatcher's 26-yard run off a draw play. A successful conversion kick closed the Payson cushion to 12-7 at halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, the Longhorns tacked on an insurance TD with 10:01 remaining in the fourth on a one-yard run by Williams.
Longhorn line coach Jack Morris said the game was sloppily played, but said the team went to Page looking for a victory and achieved exactly that.
"A win is a win," he said.
According to Morris, the Horns offense struggled under the relentless pursuit of a talented Page nose guard/tackle that coaches had identified in scout films as a standout lineman.
The Longhorn cause in Page received several outstanding defensive contributions including linebacker James Gibson's stuff of a quarterback sneak on a crucial fourth and less than a foot from the Payson's 29-yard line.
Middle linebacker Cash Armstrong stripped Devil running back Cody Thomas of the ball just when it looked as if Page was about to score from the four-yard line.
Throughout most of the game, the Payson offense was in control of the ball. The Longhorns had possession for 29:07. Page held it for 18:53.
If there was a sour note in the game, it would be that starting quarterback Donnie Wilbanks might have suffered broken ribs. His injury is scheduled to be evaluated throughout the week and his status for Friday's game is uncertain.
In his absence, sophomore Josh Blaylock could take over as signal caller.